The historical [1928 Building], just west of the Sanjo Street shopping arcade and within steps from the famous downtown shopping streets Kawaramachi and Teramachi, holds a special treasure. Above Cafe Independents and Cafe Chocolat, the arched Main Hall on the third floor of this former Kyoto bureau of the Mainichi Newspaper, reopened in 1999 under the name “Art Complex 1928”, has been transformed into a theatrical factory. That is, since April 2012, it has become the permanent home of the long-running play “GEAR”, a unique non-verbal performance with its setting as a futuristic former doll factory. This original show, which is the first of it’s kind in Japan, is produced by Art Complex, and in 2015 was voted on TripAdvisor by foreign travelers as one of Kyoto’s best attractions.
A narrow stairway on the left side of the building front leads to Cafe Chocolat, and one more flight leads to the theater lobby, with the Main Hall on the left. The arena-style theater can hold up to only one hundred audience members at a time, and the seats are directly next to the performance area. The stage is not separated from the audience, and likewise there is no curtain to be lifted when the performance begins. Therefore, the stage set is completely exposed when entering the theater, causing the audience to feel that they have already stepped into the factory. The high, arched set is covered with fascinating objects from floor to ceiling: handles, levers, wheels, gears, buttons, signs, ramps, cardboard boxes and cased dolls in boxes, fans, ladders, a broom, a balcony, and a large gear in the center of the floor. One’s curiosity is immediate piqued regarding how this set will be used.
Ushers at the entrance greet the audience as they come in, in both Japanese and English, and suggest picking up a small blanket and plastic goggles, located next to the entrance. Goggles? To protect one’s eyes, just in case there is an accident in the factory (!). Seating is narrow, but each seat has a clipboard and a survey to fill out before and at the end of the play. A small box is placed under each seat to hold one’s belongings, but if one’s things are quite bulky, the option is given at the reception desk to have them stored separately until the play is over. There are also TV monitors on both sides which provide a explanation about the story and mention the possible need for goggles once again (in particular, recommended for those sitting in the first three rows).
The doll factory, which immediately comes to life through the set’s numerous moving parts, is staffed by four Roboroids (humanlike robots) who do not realize that the company’s production has ended long ago. They still show up for work to fulfill their role in keeping the factory running. A doll that had once been produced at the factory suddenly reappears and takes on a lifelike form, and transforms the Roboroids’ dull, monotonous routine. The audience just happens to have been “invited into the factory” on this particular day to observe the Roboroids at work and to have the chance to view the interactions that they all have together. Throughout the show, the Roboroids each display their unique talents, which are breakdancing, mime, magic, and juggling. All cast members have an impressive background, such as the winning of awards and contests, setting records, and appearing in the media and on TV in their own fields. Their talents are incorporated perfectly into the storyline, and are explored extensively, with many unexpected and breathtaking moments, from head spins and handstands, to the mysterious appearance of an object on an audience member, to the juggling and passing of glowing orbs between the cast members, and several other surprises.
Their talents are accentuated by the newest developments in theater technology. From the start of the show, in which the advanced lighting techniques such as “projection mapping” are immediately displayed through the outline of all items in the factory (which must have taken an incredibly painstaking amount of time to achieve), a spellbinding effect is cast upon the audience. The lighting of large and small objects on the set, which provide moments of excitement and calm, ground the audience within the factory. Such technology can also be used to magnificently alter the set without the need for the removal of stage sets or props (such as projecting moving stars on an entire set of black to simulate the sensation of flying through space). The highly detailed coordination between the actors and lighting/sound technicians is also spot on and impressive, from the click click of the factory gears being turned (and how one gear sets off other reactions in the factory) to the robotic sounds of the Roboroids’ steps. The large gear in the center of the stage provides a smaller, revolving stage for the actors.
This is a delightful, action-packed show. The actors have a strong, energetic stage presence, and regularly welcome the audience to share in their enthusiasm through regular chances for audience participation. Each character has their own personality, and I found myself sympathizing with their struggle between being robotic and homogenous and then embracing their own particular talents and styles, as well as their dedication to maintaining the disintegrating factory. Each character is highly endearing in his/her own way. For example, the mime is stubborn and strict with the other Roboroids, who often break pieces of machinery due to their overzealousness.
Each character in the show has between four to seven members who can potentially play the role, all of them working on a rotating basis, so while the content of the show is discussed in detail between everyone in the company, the combination of actors is likely to be different if the show is seen more than once, providing a slightly different twist. I personally felt the strong desire to go back to see the show again, bringing along my son who loves to watch dance, magic, and street performances. I imagine that he would be amazed to watch these diverse talents come alive in a modern theater setting, and that in which there is almost no space separating the audience from the cast. The non-verbal, visual nature of this show is sure to delight viewers of all ages and nationalities.
After the play, I was honored to have the opportunity to interview YOPPY, an award-winning breakdancer who performed in GEAR on that day. A native of Kyoto and a member of the world-class martial arts group Ichigeki, YOPPY finished in the top four of “Battle of the Year Japan”, a major international breakdance competition. He has also won the Grand Prize in the Bronx Night 3on3 competition, among other awards. We briefly discussed the road which led him to the show and his own perspectives on the GEAR story.
I’d like to hear about your own story. When did you start breakdancing?
A: I began breakdancing when I was eighteen years old. Until then, I taught hip hop, but I saw someone breakdancing at Kyoto Station and thought it was really cool. At that time, I was with Katsu, another breakdancer in GEAR. I started acting in GEAR about three years ago.
Can you tell your perspective about the GEAR story? What do you feel when you’re acting in the show, and what would you like to convey to the audience?
A: In the show, I’m the yellow robot, who acts as a bit of a fool. In that role, I always try to smile to show my positive attitude and that I’m having fun.
How about the meaning behind the character Doll?
A: Because of the doll’s appearance, each robot discovers his own originality. Over time, the tension builds and everyone starts to have fun together. At the beginning, all of the robots are the same and their routine is rigid, but because of the doll, this all changes. The robots take on their own personalities and talents, and they begin to “feel”. In my opinion, it’s this kind of story.
What’s your favorite part of the play, and also the part your consider the most difficult?
A: I love it when everyone is running around the desk on the revolving stage. There’s a big surge of excitement and there’s a big flurry of activity. That’s really fun for me. As for the difficult part, hmm… There’s a part where, even though I had been moving around, I suddenly have to freeze in place. I always get nervous about that.
What’s your “Kyoto #1”?
A: I live in the neighborhood of Toji Temple, but I often go to the mountain beside Fushimi Inari Taisha, Mount Inari, for training. I climb all the way up the mountain. There’s a place at the very top where the view is really beautiful and you can buy a small juice for 200 yen. I love the satisfying feeling of opening and drinking that juice at the summit.
YOPPY, thank you very much for your time and a wonderful performance!!
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
GEAR performances take place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 2pm and 7pm, and Saturdays, Sundays, and Holidays at 12pm and 5pm. Tickets without reservations are on sale one hour before the show at the show venue. If it is your birthday month, you are also eligible to receive a small gift!
For more detailed information about the show, or to reserve tickets, please refer to the GEAR website: (English): http://www.gear.ac/en/