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When the DJ calls out to concertgoers at a recent event near Tokyo, the response is more visible than audible — along with some honking of car horns, a flicking of blinkers and hazard lights and flashing of penlights from behind car windows.

Welcome to the world of the “drive-in” concert, one of the ways that entertainment involving large crowds is adapting to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Drive In Fes event late last month on the outskirts of the town of Nagara in Chiba Prefecture was organized by a party creator with a track record of pioneering avant-garde gatherings and was one of the biggest drive-in concerts yet held in Japan.

Riichiro Nakama, also known as Afromance, says he began thinking about the event as early as mid-March when the pandemic’s impact on the arts and entertainment was beginning to be felt.

“I was hearing news every day of events being canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus, and I wanted to give artists and fans a venue for performance,” says the 35-year-old CEO of Afro. & Co. Inc.

“Is everybody having fun!?” one of the DJs asks, pumping up the audience in the parking lot of Longwood Station, normally a film shooting location site and event venue.

The music blasts out from a pop-up stage, but a dedicated FM radio wave is also available to tune in to inside the car.

In an instant, the parking lot is transformed into a scene from a nightclub, replete with lights and special stage effects. Fireworks are set off on the finale of the two-day festival, which included some 220 cars and about 550 participants.

“The idea (of this drive-in concert) is not to think that you have to put up with the fact that you’re stuck in a car, but that it is fun precisely because you are in a car,” says Afromance.

The pioneer of events such as “bathtub cinema” where patrons watch movies on the big screen while soaking in private bathtubs and “Maguro House,” which combines a tuna filleting show and house music, Afromance says he hopes above all that people will “enjoy an out-of-the-ordinary experience.”

A music festival is “not simply to listen to music, but to go outside to get the feel of a live festival,” he says.

Not everyone stays in their cars all the time, but the space is defined by social distancing. A voice-over reminds the audience to wear masks when outside their cars, to use hazard lights rather than cheer and to make use of the Line messaging app to check whether restrooms are crowded.

Before entering the concert grounds, organizers carry out temperature checks and guide people to their respective parking spaces. Drivers are asked to turn off their engines and urged to keep their distance from other cars.

After the festival kicks off around 6 p.m., attendees get in and out of their cars, standing or dancing outside their vehicles in a designated space, apart from other cars.

“Usually, in music festivals, we are so close to each other, but here, there’s distance and yet I can get the feel of a festival. It’s a totally new experience of enjoying a festival,” says Yuya Yanagita, a 40-year-old salesman.

Another participant, Osamu Sakai, 42, feels he has the best of both worlds. “I could get out of the car in the space permitted and move around, and when I was tired, I could just go back inside my car,” he says.

Participants are given a Spotify playlist beforehand, and to minimize contact with staff, food can be ordered via Line. Staff on roller skates deliver from stalls serving light meals and drinks. At night, their roller skates light up, as if to blend in with the colorful stage lights.

Shinichi Osawa, a musician and DJ who is part of the Mondo Grosso project, describes his performance at the event as the “most physical” he has had since the coronavirus put a halt to many of his shows.

Echoing his sentiments is music producer and DJ Taku Takahashi of Block.fm. Takahashi, who is also part of Japanese trio m-flo, says via email, “I reaffirmed how great it is to perform — in whatever form — in front of an audience.”

While challenges such as profitability loom, Afromance, who has shared his know-how beyond Tokyo in organizing such events, sees promising prospects for drive-in concerts and hopes to inspire others to follow suit.

“People are able to customize the way they enjoy a music festival like never before,” he says. “I hope this could be a movement for people (in our industry) to be forward-looking.”

Fright night: The Kowagarasetai company is offering a drive-in haunted house attraction in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. | KYODO
Fright night: The Kowagarasetai company is offering a drive-in haunted house attraction in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. | KYODO

Just as music festivals are a summer staple for Japan and abroad, so are spooky ghost themes. With virus and social distancing guidelines putting restraints on operations of traditional haunted houses, a Tokyo-based firm producing horror entertainment has thought of a creative spin: what it bills as the world’s first drive-in haunted house.

“As you’re in a car, there is no way out. This makes the whole setup all the scarier,” says Daichi Ono, a staff member of Kowagarasetai, which roughly translates to “scare squad.”

Ono explained that based on current social distancing guidelines, cast members must wear masks and be more than 2 meters away from customers and that visitors cannot scream — which to a large extent would seem to defeat the purpose of being scared in a haunted house.

Since Kowagarasetai started offering the drive-in haunted house in July, 40 to 50 groups have visited. The attraction costs ¥8,000 per car for those who bring their own vehicle and ¥9,000 for those who wish to borrow a four-seater vehicle.

Demand has been strong and many are on a waiting list. “Many visitors have told us this is more terrifying,” says Ono.

Rather than feeling secure inside a car, people start finding the confined space oppressive, he says, separated from the horrors by only a window.

The location of the show — in a secret dark garage in Tokyo’s Minato Ward — is revealed only when a reservation is confirmed.

Once the visitor stops the car and turns off the engine in eerie pitch-black darkness, a voice begins to narrate a ghastly tale that happened inside a garage.

Terror is amplified by sounds of someone knocking on the car as well as a ghost or zombie suddenly appearing at the side window or in front of the windshield during the almost 20-minute show.

“As long as there’s a car, we can do it anywhere. That’s our strong point,” Ono says.

Concerts and haunted houses aren’t the only attractions getting Japanese people to hop back into their cars for some entertainment. The pandemic has also spurred a revival of drive-in theaters that were popular in Japan in the 1990s until they eventually phased out partly due to a rise in cinema complexes.

Do it Theater reopened drive-in theaters in 2014, several years ahead of the pandemic, but the virus had provided more momentum.

“With less entertainment since April, we wanted to provide a place where everyone can enjoy themselves and take a breather,” says Daichi Ito, general manager of Do it Theater.

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