Go! Go! Kingyo!

by Tomoko Otake

If you go down to Roppongi tonight, you’re sure of a few surprises. Not least, in Tokyo’s favorite party zone renowned for its glitz and sleaze, you’re guaranteed a world tour of ethnic restaurants, along with enough bars, dance clubs and strip joints to satisfy every taste.

Then there’s Roppongi Kingyo.

Kingyo is a “show pub” tucked away down a back alley a couple of minutes’ walk from the station. When you find it, though, you’ll never forget the motif on its yellow entrance sign: a coquettish goldfish kissing a penis. To actually enter, you go through an equally memorable door . . . in the shape of a vagina.

So if you are a first-timer like me, and if all you know about Kingyo (which means “goldfish”) is along the lines of how the Hato Bus brochures describe it — a venue for new-half (transsexual) shows featuring “the most abnormal oni-chama (guys)” — you’ll definitely be in for a big surprise.

That’s because all the hype on sexuality is only a tease.

In reality, Kingyo’s 70-minute program covers such taboo themes as Japan’s wartime past, the U.S. military presence in Okinawa and the nation’s poor treatment of handicapped people.

Where else in the world would the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by U.S. Marines be showcased in such a setting — every night? Yet that’s exactly what Kingyo owner/director Shozo Tanimoto has done for years.

Kingyo, now for more than a decade, has always tried to “not only draw out human emotions, but have them multiply in the audience’s heads and stay there,” as Tanimoto — sporting a dapper striped suit — explained one recent night at a dimly lit table facing the stage.

A showbiz veteran of 30 years, Tanimoto owns several after-hours establishments across Tokyo, including Lexington Queen, a Roppongi disco famous for its long list of big-name visitors, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Lenny Kravitz and Christian Slater.

But at Kingyo, whose decor is made to look like a goldfish bowl, Tanimoto’s challenge seems to be selling provocative imagery to the rank-and-file, like groups of middle-aged women on Hato Bus sightseeing tours and aging businessmen entertaining clients.

‘Half a step ahead’

Getting such regular folks to fork out a 4,000 yen cover charge each — plus several thousand more yen for a traditional Japanese course dinner and/or drinks — is no easy task, especially with bubble-era extravagance long since a thing of the past. But Tanimoto says there is always a way to entice people, as long as he stays “half a step ahead of the times.”

When Kingyo opened in 1994, for instance, he said that the show’s message to the audience amounted to a warning. By then, the economic bubble had already burst, but still few people could foresee what Japan would experience a few years down the road — a series of banking and life-insurance failures that set off fears of a financial meltdown and undermined such key foundations of the society as lifetime employment.

“We had two types of customers back in those days,” Tanimoto recalls. “There were those who knew the bubble had burst; then there were those who didn’t. Some sararimen were still gulping bottles of champagne here. So we were saying, ‘Wake up! Don’t you know that Japan is over?’ To get our message across, we even had more than a dozen dancers end up ‘dead’ on stage in every show.”

In contrast, the Kingyo shows these days are full of bittersweet sentimentality. Even the schoolgirl-rape is gently and artistically done, complemented in the background by a mellow rendition of “Hana,” a popular song written by Okinawan singer/songwriter Shokichi Kina. Tanimoto says the show’s aim today is to “comfort” those businessmen who feel the mounting pressure and insecurity of restructuring despite all their hard work for so long.

Changing kind of dancers

“Our typical customer today is an office-worker dad who lives about an hour by train from here, and who goes home and tells his daughter to study hard so she can get into a good university,” he said. “Then one day, he gets the ax.”

“Our message [to him] is, ‘You don’t have to overwork yourself any more; you’ve done so much.’ ”

Over the years, Kingyo has also changed the kinds of dancers it hires. When it started, new-halfs dominated the cast, but over time the pub has reduced its dependence on transsexuals. Today, only half of the dozen dancers are transsexuals, and the rest are men dressed like men and women dressed like women, according to Tanimoto.

Asked why, Tanimoto puts a spin on what might equally be interpreted as a shortage of talented transsexual dancers: “The way we use new-half has changed as the standard of our productions has gone up. We have come to value whoever shines best, whether they are female, male or new-half.”

Still, Kingyo remains one of the few show pubs in Tokyo where transsexuals can strut their stuff — and earn credit for their skills rather than just be gawked at.

Yuu Maiga says it was only after she started a dancing career at another of Tanimoto’s show pubs seven years ago that she really felt at home. The 26-year-old star entertainer, who was born male, says she grew up always feeling like a girl. Until after her high-school graduation, she says she kept her sexuality hidden, behaving like a boy in public while wearing manicure in private. Afterward, she left her hometown in Hyogo Prefecture and came to Tokyo, where she was soon recruited to work at a gay bar as a hostess.

Then seven years ago, when visiting Kingyo as a guest, Yuu was mesmerized by the high-speed action on stage. She subsequently auditioned with Tanimoto’s company for a part.

“In many situations, especially on TV, new-half people are still treated as freaks or perverts,” Yuu said backstage one night before showtime, as she put on mascara to make her big eyes look even bigger.

Having completed her sex-change operations three years ago, Yuu now looks perfectly like — or perhaps more perfectly womanly — than a woman. “Here, we are not treated differently from other [non-transsexual] dancers,” she said. “We are not commercially marketable for just being new-half any more. We go through rigorous training, and we share a conviction that our work helps raise the overall status of new-half people.”

Indeed, regardless of their sexuality, dancers are required to pull off some fairly astonishing feats of acrobatics. During the show, too, they change many times from one elaborate, spangle-studded costume to another, and sometimes jump on and off a conveyer belt and the split-level stage — which moves up and down through 10 meters between the floor and ceiling. Besides watching their steps so they don’t fall both dangerously and unprofessionally, they also dance to a wide range of music from jazz to rock to J-pop.

Since the stage floors are made up of dozens of smaller wooden panels — each able to be turned at right angles or slid together to become stairs in a matter of seconds — there’s no place for anything but perfect timing in the dancers’ movements . . . with the dread prospect of trapped toes or worse to focus their concentration in earnest.

In fact, Yuu said that once she tripped on the complicated stage, and the painful result was five stitches in her elbow. Yet even today, after four years at Kingyo, her feet are covered in bruises, she confides.

Likewise, stage staffers are under enormous pressure to get things right every time. Twenty-seven-year-old Takayuki Kimura, who operates the computer-controlled stage panels, knows that the dancers’ lives could literally be at his fingertips.

“It’s like playing a musical instrument,” says Kimura, who majored in stage production. “I can change the stage structure by pushing several buttons in succession. But if I pushed the wrong one, the stage would transform into the completely wrong shape.”

Unpredictable audiences

What’s more, the aging machines act weirdly at times. On one occasion recently, the show was suspended for about 10 minutes, as the emergency alarm for one of the stage floors went off due to a computer glitch. So not all is perfect in this Tokyo goldfish bowl which, while glitzy, does not reach the terpsichorean heights of Takarazuka either.

Also, audience responses vary from night to night.

Once, for example, after a scene that re-enacted Japan’s wartime sentiment by having a school-uniformed young boy saluting skyward as he braced himself to go to war — with his weeping mother beside him — a group of women giggled, then they started to yell out, “I don’t get it!”

Yet, during the same scene another night, one person seemed quite overcome and just couldn’t stop clapping furiously.

But any response is probably better than no response at all for Tanimoto, who says that he himself regards war as “meaningless.” But he keeps his messages open-ended. It’s his business-savvy.

“It’s all part of our marketing strategy,” Tanimoto says with a grin. “We want people to be disturbed and hooked — and to come back for more.”