A New Theme Park in Tokyo Lets You Be the Star of the Show

A New Theme Park in Tokyo Lets You Be the Star of the Show

Its creators hope to take the concept—part immersive theater, part interactive dining—to cities worldwide.

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(Bloomberg) — Watching grown men and women voluntarily put on voluminous, red and black cancan skirts and participate in a lively kick line onstage isn’t exactly a typical day in Japan.

But that’s just one of the things you’re almost guaranteed to see at Immersive Fort Tokyo, a new interactive indoor theme park by Katana Inc., whose chief executive officer, Tsuyoshi Morioka, brought to life Comcast Corp.’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Japan.

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Open since March on the “entertainment island” of Odaiba, Immersive Fort Tokyo spans two floors and 30,000 square meters (323,000 square feet) with about 10 different “attractions.” Each contains its own interactive storyline, be it the candy-swirled cottages of Hansel and Gretel, strewn with dessert buffets inside; interactive dining at the all-red Cabaret; or murder mysteries that, like an elaborate escape room, require collaborative puzzle solving. Think of it as New York City’s Sleep No More, times ten.

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In a country where public transportation is nearly silent and people rarely strike up conversations with those they don’t know, these forms of spontaneous public performance seem quintessentially un-Japanese. But Katana is learning how to get over the cultural hurdles, and so far it seems to be working.

On a visit in mid-May, people were coming out of their shells, interacting with the actors and other guests, and even getting up onstage to show off their moves. By the end of each attraction, nerves had given way to wholehearted participation, adding to the many ways that the interactive sets—which richly layer costumes and props with light effects and surround sound—blur the line between reality and fiction. 

“People were a bit more hesitant than we expected in terms of having the courage to take the first step,” says Koh Tamura, senior partner in marketing at Katana. “But we’ve made lots of changes since opening, and I think now we’ve pretty much solved that problem.”

Tamura says actors have learned to actively push and help the guests overcome their jitters by guiding them and taking the first step together. And people may keep coming back for more, since every storyline will reveal unique outcomes, depending on how individuals and teams decide to navigate each time. 

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The concept is resonating especially with twenty- and thirtysomethings, who are showing up in the greatest numbers, according to the company. Tickets cost upwards of ¥6,800 ($44) for adults per entry—not including food and beverages at the restaurants, or special attractions like a Sherlock Holmes-themed walkthrough theater—making it comparable to Tokyo Disneyland’s ticket prices. Moreover, the company says it hopes to achieve a similar sales volume as Japan’s other big-name theme parks.

A New Style of Entertainment

Tokyo is no stranger to immersive experiences: This is, after all, the birthplace of the ethereal digital art studio teamLab (which itself runs an immersive art museum near Immersive Fort) and many high-tech VR games. But the way Immersive Fort Tokyo turns the audience from spectators to participants makes it unlike any of those predecessors and more similar to Walt Disney Co.’s Star Wars-themed Galactic Starcruiser experience, in which guests stayed overnight in a hotel for immersive, two-day missions.

Once guests step inside the theme park, they’re immediately transported to a small European town lined with charming Romanesque-style buildings. Actresses draped in long, maid-like dresses greet visitors with a “Ciao!” when they pass, sharing town gossip with visitors like they’re old friends. Each of the attractions stems from the central village; some require a queue to get in, while others carry out in open spaces in and around the central plaza.

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In one attraction based on the popular video game Identity V, participants are assigned to groups of about a half-dozen and dropped into a maze; the goal is to escape before getting hunted by hungry, giant clowns. Finding safe spaces along the way and hiding from the nightmarish giants is a quick (and heart-pounding) way to bond with strangers, it turns out. (It should be noted that this experience may not be well suited to children: A few unsuspecting kids left the immersive chase crying and clutching at their parents.)

First Japan, Then the World

Wherever there’s spoken language, it’s Japanese. Given the emphasis on interaction and collaboration, that makes participation a challenge for the average international tourist. Translations, so far, are lacking; even buying a ticket online can be cumbersome for a non-Japanese speaker. 

Tamura says Katana is working on solving the language gap. Currently an app offers real-time translation in Chinese, English and Korean for an attraction that drops you into the story of Hansel and Gretel; making sure that guests know the app is available and expanding such translations to other parts of the park are among the next steps. On our visit, non-Japanese speakers stared blankly at images as they sought context clues for the broader plot. In some instances, they struggled to communicate with fellow teammates.

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“We want to make it so that the number of foreigners are about the same or above the percentage at Universal Studios Japan,” says Tamura, indicating a desire to grow the share of international guests from 5% to around 15%. 

Katana may be wise to double down on the attractions where language isn’t a barrier. Take the twinkle-lit Cabaret restaurant, where feather-clad dancers, bedazzled singers and soulful trumpeters playfully glide among the tables performing modern-day hits like Beyonce’s Single Ladies, prompting diners to join the action. This, it seems, is how you get a bunch of otherwise reserved Japanese folks to don extravagant outfits and perform that kick line—a type of energy release that serves as a much-needed antidote to Japan’s famously conservative and hardworking culture.

“People are usually so stressed out from working or going to school that they can’t really be themselves,” says Tamura. “This park is not only changing people’s environment, but also who they can be. Just spending one day here can really get rid of that stress and energize people.” To that point, visitors left each attraction with wide smiles; we heard many patrons gush to their friends (and to strangers) about how much fun they’d had. 

Of course, stress relief is a need felt by people in many cities around the world, and that’s exactly the point. 

“In the future, we want to take this idea to cities that are renowned for their entertainment like New York, London, Las Vegas or Paris,” says Tamura, noting the large demand for Japanese or anime-related attractions abroad. “I think people abroad will definitely love this.” 

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