Because life is amazing I am in Tokyo!
After twelve years of planning, the two weeks of holiday want to be used up to the full. Lonely Planet’s Best of Tokyo’s 2018 is read weeks before along with other guides and we already giggle when reading about a live performance of “singing and dancing young women wearing cute outfits and hockey masks”. Swinging of light sabres is also promised – a fun night out in Akihabara (aka Akiba), Tokyo’s district for anime, manga and otaku culture (or if that does not mean anything to you: Japanese cartoon, comic and geek merchandise). All afternoon we have walked through the endless department stores selling electronics, computer games and fan articles of any kind, won two or three bags of crisps at the noisy pachinko slot machines and been invited to maid cafes on every corner. Only days later, at the show at the Robot Restaurant, will I learn that this type of entertainment (pay a girl dressed up as a doll – who will behave like a 5-year-old admiring you – to have cake with you) has an equivalent elsewhere in Tokyo aimed at females (the butler café if you are interested). I am shocked at the sheer existence of an action figure for sale; that of a secretary, coming with its own miniature strap for slapping her. Even the very dark-humoured part of me cannot laugh about this.
Even with a map you can easily get lost in Akiba but all of a sudden we find ourselves standing where we want to be for the hockey masks and light sabres: It is a skyscraper belonging to the P.A.R.M.S. or Pasela Resort, a vertical mini-Las Vegas with its own wedding venue, stages and lots of board games in the hotel lobby (the Japanese editions of the back catalogues of German board game inventors Wolfgang Kramer and Klaus Teuber are almost complete). We ask if tickets for the performance tonight are available and they are, the show begins in half an hour and a lift will take us to the floor of the Kamen-Joshi Theater.
The lobby fills soon. Quickly we realise that I am the only woman and that we are the only westerners. Soon we wave our plastic hand fans in the need of air, printed on the fans are the 16 members of the girl band Kamen Joshi who have their residence show here, performing twice almost every day. The picture on the fan shows them wearing frilly Sgt. Pepper frocks with short skirts, crocs and neon hockey masks. We receive voting cards to pick our favourite performer tonight. Why not, given that there seems to be over a dozen performers. There are not many seating opportunities, only four tables that are already taken by other guests eating curry out of paper containers. A middle-aged man kindly offers us his chair once he has finished eating and this is the only eye contact we have with fellow audience members all night. Eventually I spot another lady in a vast white t-shirt, maybe in her late teens, maybe older. She smiles but does not seem to be with anyone.
The support act starts, pig-tailed girls wearing short sports gear and chucks, singing j-pop songs no one seems to know. Restrained applause. We look at each other and agree: We are here for the parody of Japanese pop idol culture or at least experiencing it on steroids – but then I think of the feature anime film Perfect Blue in which a member of a pop trio with modest success grabs the chance to widen her fame by performing in terribly violent exploitation films, only to end up in a mental home. It is not a bad film but I fast-forwarded some of the bleak scenes, even though they were animated.
The main act starts and two girls in acrobatic gear appear on stage – everything is in Japanese but we get the synopsis: During a thunderstorm our two acrobats reach the citadel of a hockey mask wearing Father Christmas who introduces them to his fellowship of hockey-masked dull-clad, howling ghosts and the girls are finally granted the face covers themselves. Proud parts of the gang now they reappear with the wights who in return have adapted to their funky dressing style: Everyone now wears flashy uniforms, carrying toy weapons and shiny chain saws with plenty of light effects – plastic fantastic! There are e-guitars and metal riffs and we are laughing and cheering and everyone received glow sticks to wave. And the audience does cheer as if there is no tomorrow, sings along, copies the dance moves and I wonder if any other first timers are here. Not that the choreography seems too advanced. I remember our voting cards but how should you pick a favourite when everyone on stage wears the same mask? Can you actually sing into a microphone wearing it? As to prove it the masks fall for a couple of songs but I have no favourites between these pop clones.
A book read years ago comes back to me, Hello Kitty Must Die – the Californian narrator of Asian heritage cannot believe how people can love a cat denied of everything which could be a danger for others: her claws and teeth, even a mouth to talk back. The hockey mask is not that far away from this, maybe even a bit more in your face, pardon the pun. It soon feels no longer that we are celebrating kawaii cuteness here; comparing the average age on stage and it doesn’t seem innocent at all. There is audience devotion and tears shed at a level I have not even observed at Lady Gaga concerts, but it feels suddenly very bitter and wrong and, well, foreign.
One singer crowd surfs in a rubber boat. The last act I have seen doing this was Rammstein at the Hurricane Festival years ago but here there are hardly 200 visitors. Afterwards there is an interval. We decide to leave and have not even used our drink vouchers. This is not our scene, not our crowd and we leave the finale to those who own it before we become too judgemental.
It is only our third night in Japan.
Yesterday we followed another recommendation of our guide book and ventured out to the Koenji area of West Tokyo – Koenji Awa Odori is a dance festival for O-Bon, a celebration when the dead are honoured and folk dance parades of up to 12,000 participants pay their respects. It was one of the most beautiful days I ever had in what seems to be an exciting but very nonchalant neighbourhood. During the three hours of the parade we spoke with many locals and absorbed the community. Everyone made us feel welcome and explained the rituals, the dance moves, the straw hats and the drums. I hope I get another chance to experience more of that side of Japan.