On a recent visit to Japan, the Cut's contributing photographer Amy Lombard took a friend’s advice to visit Toyko’s purikura — the popular, face-altering photo booths known for producing portraits that fall somewhere on the spectrum between anime characters and human Barbie. “I had seen the pictures of people who’d come back and they’d have the huge eyes, and their skin is a lot lighter,” Lombard told the Cut. In Tokyo, she visited a half dozen multilevel arcades — frequented by teenage girls in the after-school hours — and documented the overwhelmingly popular Japanese phenomenon. She spoke with the Cut about the purikura crowd, Kawaii style trends, and her own experience trying out the photo booth.
What was it like inside the arcades?
A lot of the purikura are in Shibuya and Shinjuku, and they’re typically on the first floor of the arcade. It’s like all pink everything, with stuffed animals and stuff. It’s very catered to teenage girls and Kawaii culture. Some were nicer than others, but it’s interesting: These photo booths are clearly made so you can be your “best self,” so you’re creating these beautiful pictures but the spaces themselves are sort of disgusting. They were just kind of decrepit spaces, with graffiti on the walls — it was just sort of an interesting juxtaposition.
It’s mainly women on the first floor, but I found that on every floor of the arcade things just get a little bit weirder. The second floor is normally catered toward men, and I found that on each floor the crowds got a little bit older and the smoke was denser. Things get a little bit darker, both in terms of color scheme, and also, like, people don’t really talk to each other. Everyone’s chain-smoking.
What was the purikura crowd like?
You walk in and you can just hear teenage girls giggling. I would say it’s mostly teenagers to people in their early 20s. It was always crowded. I would mostly go in the afternoon, right when they got out of school, and you can’t even move in these places, even just on a weekday at four in the afternoon. The photos cost about 500 yen each, which is the equivalent of a little less than $5. At some, they have costumes that you can rent and dress up in, but a lot of girls would come in already wearing these elaborate outfits. There are the style trends you’d expect, like gothic Lolitas, and a lot of girls dressed as school girls even when it was a weekend. Every single woman I saw was interested in being photographed.
Did you try out the photo booth yourself?
Yeah, I did two of them. It’s really funny because they tell you how to pose. It’ll be like, Place your hands like this, underneath your chin, and they tell you where to put your feet. It’s just sort of absurd. My face looks like a painting, and our eyes look insane. When you finish taking the photos you can choose to put different things on them — they have like bumble bees and flowers and candy — essentially everything you would expect them to have. One of my favorite things about Japan is that they have all these English sayings that don’t make much sense at all. So the photos say, like, “I am smiles,” or “You are my best” with like ten exclamation points.
Were you surprised by anything while visiting the purikura?
I think the most surprising thing was maybe not the photo booths in particular, but this whole idea of Kawaii culture as this really cute thing that people are obsessed with, when actually it’s really depressing. Like, these girls spend hours here taking pictures of themselves — they’re obsessed with it. You can tell they know what they’re doing when they go into different photo booths — like “Heroine Face” or “Kawaii Face” — it’s like a big decision. The spaces themselves are just really depressing.