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Miwa Yanagi's "Maid Café"

Keiko Sakagami
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University
(School of Culture, Media and Society)

I recently visited a "maid café" for the first time ever.

However, the café that I visited was produced by Miwa Yanagi, a contemporary visual artist. The café was opened for a limited time as one event part of Festival Tokyo, a theatrical festival held in Ikebukuro from October 30th to November 28th, 2010.

Café Rottenmeier was suddenly opened in front of Ikebukuro Station, next to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space. "Rottenmeier" is the name of the servant who appears in the animated series "Heidi, Girl of the Alps."

Upon entering the café, I was greeted by a maid who said "Welcome home, my princess." Although this is the standard greeting normally giving at a maid café, it seems that the café of Miwa Yanagi is completely opposite from a real maid café. Instead of service being provided by a young maid wearing a miniskirt, customers are taken care of by a white-haired elderly woman wearing a long skirt. Instead of the standard maid greeting being given in a cute, high tone, customers are greeted in a completely different deep voice which is dignified and menacing. The elderly maid does not force a smile or treat customers kindly. Indeed, instead of smiling, the scowling maids all seem angry. Or perhaps it would be best to describe the faces of the maids as Spartan-like. Upon entering this café, a customer expecting a normal maid café might be shocked by the frightening atmosphere in which he finds himself.

The elderly maids greet customers in such a perfunctory manner. However, they also sometimes make sweets together in order to entertain customers. The customers at the café are not allowed to simply observe the work of the maids. Instead, they are forced to help in various ways. Still, the maids offer very entertaining service which is set to song and dance. When customers leave the café, the maids send them off with a scowl and the parting words of "I am looking forward to your return, my princess." For some reason, after spending time at the café, I felt the urge to return again in the future. Perhaps I am not the only one who feels this way?

Miwa Yanagi is photographic artist who creates interesting works under the theme of "women." She released her first work, a series entitled "Elevator Girl", in the 1980s. In recent years, her works include an event entitled "My Grandmothers" in which young women imagine themselves 50 years in the future. Also, she produced a series of works entitled "Windswept Women" which were exhibited at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Many of her works deals with the theme of "life" and "aging" in women.

Café Rottenmeier features both performances and theater (performed within the café in a separate time). This type of media differs from the mainly photographic works that Yanagi has produced in the past. However, the theme and concept of the café is similar to previous works.

The café maids within the performance are portrayed by women in their 20s and 40s who take part in what is known as "cosplay." Similar to past works of Yanagi, this performance consists of active "acting" which dispels the dark and negative image associated with aging. Instead, Yanagi uses a method in which the act of aging is fashioned into an indifferent and positive image. However, the performance also gives glimpses of a wavering image which is unnatural and uncomfortable. This image is almost grotesque in its vagueness and ambiguity, containing an infinite amount of uneasiness.

Currently, similar to Japanese animation, maid cafes are expanding overseas. Both maid cafes and animation can be described as reflecting one extremity of contemporary "cute" Japanese culture. I often feel as if young women in contemporary Japan are obsessed with behaving as mythical "fairies." Such young women dress as if they were participating in cosplay, behave similar to café maids and continue to exist as cute young girls. The image of women displayed by Yanagi seems to use paradox to uncover the true feelings of such young women.

Café Rottenmeier

Business Days: Oct. 30th (Sat.), 31st (Sun.); Nov. 6th (Sat.), 7th (Sun.), 13th (Sat.), 14th (Sun.), 20th (Sat.), 21st (Sun.), 23rd (Tues./holiday), 27th (Sat.), 28th (Sun.)

Hours of Operation: 12:00 PM to 10:00 PM

◎Cooking Show: During the afternoons of business days, elderly maids entertain customers by making sweets.
Normally held twice day from 1:00 PM and 4:00 PM.

◎Theatrical Performance (within café)
A theatrical performance is performed by the Rottenmeiers within the café. The performance was written and directed by Miwa Yanagi.
Performance Dates: Nov. 23rd (Tues./holiday), 27th (Sat.), 28th (Sun.)
Performance Times: 23rd: from 7:00 PM; 27th, 28th: from 6:00 PM
Venue: 1-8-1 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toyoshima Ward, F/T Station (in front of Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space

Keiko Sakagami
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University
(School of Culture, Media and Society)

She graduated from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, Waseda University, majoring in History of Art. After studying at Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University, she has assumed the present post. Her speciality is modern and contemporary art, comparative culture. Her major works include "Painters in Dream and Luminescence: Reconsideration of Modernite (Modernity)" (publisher: Skydoor/ Winning the new face award of Minister of Education Award for Fine Arts) and "Berthe Morisot: Modern Times Lived by a Female Painter" (publisher: Shogakukan Inc.).