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Column "My Cool Japan"

Keiko Watanabe

Pioneering the Empty Night Entertainment Market

Movie and Stage ProducerHidemi Fukuhara

SAKURA is a theater show that combines Japanese pop culture, traditional art, and the latest technology. I took part in producing that show, which was held in Meijiza in Nihonbashi from September 2016 to March 2017.
 SAKURA is a non-verbal performance that makes use of parts of Japanese culture that Japan boasts to the world, such as anime, projection mapping, Noh, Japanese dance, and Japanese instruments. It is a musical fantasy that tells the story of Sakura, a high-school girl and the main character, throughout the beauty of Japan’s four seasons. Using your smartphone is allowed throughout the entire performance. Audience members who download a specific app can enjoy contrivances that have them become part of the performance, such as their flash going off randomly or any pictures they take automatically getting decorated. This application also offers subtitles in five languages for the song lyrics that carry the story.
 Because of characteristics like that, in recent years, SAKURA has become very popular as a night entertainment option for tourists visiting Japan and has received great reviews from people of all ages and various nationalities. I am proud of having accomplished a wonderful show that combines the Meijiza, a theater boasting more than 140 years of history, and masters of traditional performing arts with young Japanese talent using the latest technologies in fields like anime production, video production, illustration, and voice recognition.


However, in order to be able to continue shows like SAKURA as a business, we need to think about not just the work’s quality, but also the challenges facing Japan, and especially Tokyo. First, let’s compare Tokyo to Las Vegas, the king of the night entertainment world.
 Las Vegas is a city filled with nothing but tourists. They have a huge number of tourists within a limited amount of space, so if they throw some content there, the tourists will come naturally.
 However, Tokyo is so large that the tourists are not enclosed. The theaters and playhouses are scattered throughout the city, as is the information. While there are certainly tourists with the motivation to keep enjoying themselves even at night, Tokyo still has not established its brand as a night entertainment spot enough for these tourists to actively go look for information.
 Also, Las Vegas generally has two shows a night starting at 7:00 PM and 21:30 PM. All shows run for an hour and a half. This makes it easy for tourists to create plans that balance dinner and a show so they don’t have to fuss. The entire city is built on a systematic time schedule.
 On the other hand, Tokyo fails at setting times for shows. In the beginning, SAKURA was set to start at 8:30 PM, but we were told that time didn’t work by Chinese tour groups. This was because the service rules for Japanese tourism buses are strict, and drivers have a set number of hours that they can work. A bus that left a hotel at 8:00 AM must return by 9:00 PM. There was also the matter of parking multiple tour buses.
 How about New York’s Broadway? Tourists as well as residents of the nearby areas go to see shows, and they receive a lot of information just by walking around. There’s also a website that sells tickets for all of the countless theaters. There are cities with established night entertainment markets all over the world, such as London’s opera houses and Paris’s Moulin Rouge neighborhood, but on the other hand, Tokyo’s night entertainment market is said to be empty. This infrastructural problem is one of the reasons why. Actually, many shows in Tokyo are suffering from a business point of view. While SAKURA was indeed meant to target visiting tourists, it’s true that if Japanese people don’t come to see the show, it is very difficult as a business.

Another characteristic of night entertainment is the question of “How do we keep audiences from getting tired of it?” The reduction of running time and the speed of development is important.
 SAKURA is watched by people from various nationalities, from babies to the elderly. There were families, there were couples. There were students, businessmen, and housewives. This is to say, there were almost no shared attributes among them. However, the one attribute that they had in common was that after sightseeing, they were tired or sleepy. In particular, tour groups include people that aren’t seeing the show because they want to, so one major point during show production is figuring out how to keep their interest.
 90 minutes is the maximum limit for running time. For SAKURA, we made it shorter at 65 minutes. However, the shorter it is, the lower the ticket price. The price must be at a level where tourists will return to their countries and write reviews that say, “For that price, it was worth going,” and advertise the show through word-of-mouth.
 Figuring out the show’s composition is also important. The internationally popular show Cirque du Soleil is composed of 5-10 minute-long acts of professionals performing in fields like juggling, ball-balancing, trapeze, tightrope walking, floor gymnastics, group gymnastics, and more, following a theme. In all, 7-8 groups perform along with the story, which, along with the show’s production, makes it an easy watch for tourists.
 SAKURA follows the same model. There are 6-7 different performances, including dance, magic, and staged battles, following one theme. This way, parts that aren’t well-received can be dropped or the schedule can be changed. Actually, SAKURA’s composition was changed during its run, so audience members that saw the show when it first started and came to see it again six months later complimented it by saying it had gotten exceptionally better.

After my managerial experience at Merrill Lynch Securities, I became the president of Viz Media, an American company established by companies including Shueisha and Shogakukan. I was involved in projects such as the English-language publishing of Shonen Jump and the overseas development of manga and anime. I have always liked entertainment, and the reason I took that job was because I wanted to work in a position related to creating content. After that, in July 2014, I experienced producing a movie when I worked on the Hollywood movie that was also released in Japan called All You Need is Kill starring Tom Cruise.
 The way young people deal with entertainment is continuing to change. Saving TV episodes and watching them later without commercials is becoming ordinary. Shows and plays are offering performances within traditional, unchanging formats for people with that new kind of viewing habit. Traditional art might be fine as is, but night entertainment must step away from that. If we are going to attract new audience members in a new time system, we must forget the format that has been used until now.

Recently, multiple shows aimed at foreign tourists like SAKURA have been performed in Tokyo.
 I am in the process of planning SAKURA’s revival, aimed for 2019. Since the number of visiting tourists is increasingly rising as we get closer to 2020, I wish to pioneer the empty night entertainment market even just a little as we wage full-out war to arrange an environment to accept all these tourists in Japan. I would be delighted if SAKURA becomes a part of that.

SAKURA Official Homepage: http://sakura-meijiza.com/


Hidemi Fukuhara

Movie and Stage Producer

After the management experience in Merrill Lynch, Fukuhara changed his career into the entertainment industry. Moved to the USA. Localized Japanese MANGA / ANIME and developed the market in the North America and Europe. Started producing Hollywood movies using Japanese contents - “Edge of Tomorrow”. Came back in Japan and produced the stage show - the musical fantasy “SAKURA” at Meijiza.