What is it about purikura that makes it so appealing? Is it its ability to capture a moment in time with friends or a loved one? Or maybe it's the priceless gift of physical enhancement, the transformation of the regular you into an anime-like, adorable version of yourself, forever printed on glossy film? Or perhaps, it's simply an inarguably fun form of entertainment that satisfies something silly and childlike in all of us.
You would be hard-pressed to wander the malls and shopping centers of the country and not stumble upon one of these colorful, alluring photo booths.
Purikura has become a staple of entertainment in the hearts of many young Japanese and people across the world
Taking photos in themed booths allows for customers to feel glamorous for a few minutes, to become someone else. Like most forms of entertainment, it's an escape from reality. Of course, more modern purikura booths could alter your appearance completely, if you like—whether that's a positive message or not is up to the consumer to decide. Big eyes, small chins, smoothed-out, flawless skin…all features reminiscent of manga or anime characters that are idolized in Japan are attainable in purikura booths.
Exchanging and sharing pictures taken at the photo booth is a great way for Japanese school kids, especially girls, to show affection for one another and to strengthen their friendships.
But, how did purikura even come to be? What is the origin story of something that has become such an enjoyable part of modern Japanese culture?
In 1995, the debut of the photo booths Print Club 1 and Print Club 2 was the result of a joint effort between Atlus and Sega, companies that knew there was a widespread interest amongst Japanese females in both photography and stickers. The first booths only printed out low-resolution stickers, but they signified the start of something huge.
The name Print Club is trademarked, and, as you may have guessed, is where the name purikura comes from. In Japanese, the pronunciation of print club is purinto kurabu, which, shortened, becomes puri-kura.
While not quite a nationwide sensation off the bat, the purikura booth was featured on an episode of the popular variety show SMAPxSMAP in 1997 (hosted by one of the most popular boy bands and entertainers in Japanese history, SMAP), which launched a purikura boom that's never quite settled. According to the Japan Amusement Machinery Manufacturers Association, JAMMA, Japan had over 36,000 purikura machines in use in 2002, considered to be a time of puikura's peak popularity. In 2010, the number of purikura came to a little less than half than that at 15,000. But don't worry—that's still a significant number, leaving ample opportunity to find a machine to use. In fact, you might even say that, over time, there has been a push for quality over quantity.
To see how truly far purikura booths have come since 1995, one must look back at the abilities of their earliest ancestors. When they first came onto the scene, there were very limited options in terms of design or theme, and they, surprisingly, didn't begin as full-body photo booths. Instead, they offered the simple, shoulder-up shot that was also offered by their Western counterparts. What made them unique was the ability to create cute photo stickers that could be split up and shared between friends, who would then plaster the small pictures anywhere they liked: notebooks, diaries, etc.
The full-body purikura then came along in 1998, followed by the addition in 1999 of pens, skin tone editing, and, of course, the now-iconic decorations. Decorating and personalizing the pictures became such a major part of the photo-taking process, that in 2000, the screen on which to edit photos became separate from the screen that you looked at while taking photos
In 2003, the ability to alter your features came to be, stepping up purikura's game yet again. This upgrade added another important notch in its evolution and forever changed the Japanese photo booth experience. Some may see the offer to change appearances as a negative message that's being sent to people, especially young, impressionable girls who may be dealing with overcoming low self-confidence. Others, however, see it to simply have fun and get a peek at an alternate version of themselves—boosting their confidence, in fact.
It's important to note that an essential rule went into effect in 2004 that remains in place to this day at many purikura-hosting establishments: any male entering must be accompanied by a female. This, unfortunately, needed to be set into motion to help fight against any possible sexual harassment that could take place against young girls (up-skirt photos, etc.) and to create a comfortable, safe atmosphere for purikura's clientele (which is made up of mostly young girls). So, if you're a guy and you're hankering for a photo booth session in Japan, make sure to bring a gal! Or, you may find yourself quickly escorted out. In an LGBT-conscious world, however, this black-and-white rule may become obsolete down the road.
Where the options were once simple and straightforward at the start of purikura's release, they are now seemingly infinite. You can now, for example, find a booth that allows you to choose a themed costume (cosplay) to throw on before taking pictures. After paying (usually around 400 yen) and once inside, you get to choose the theme and style of your pictures, along with other specifications, and then you're ready to strike a pose (well, several).
This is not your mother's photo booth. It's not like in the States, where the customer simply enters the booth, makes silly faces, and gets the photos spat out at them a few moments later. Oh, no—this is much different, making the experience with purikura even more unique and memorable.
You almost can't help but feel your mood instantly brighten once you're in the booth, enjoying yourself with a friend or someone you love. Be prepared for bright lights, loud, cheerful music, and an array of editing options following the photo session (usually done within a specific, set amount of time). Once you've edited your photos, you wait a short time to receive the printed photo stickers that you will likely hang onto for years to come, smiling back on a simple, fun day spent with people you cared about.
It's easy to see why purikura has been around for over two decades, firmly rooted in Japanese pop culture: it's a way for people to transform themselves—sometimes beautifully, sometimes hilariously. It's a way to capture a moment in time with friends or partners, but in a way, that's elevated beyond just a simple picture.
It could also explain why sticker-happy, face-altering mobile apps such as Puri Kawaii have caught on across the world. Users have access to adorable, comical, of themselves in just seconds.