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Invaders on Broadway
Is this replica of Tokyo's past Japan's future?
Just a little west of Tokyo’s center can be found an aging multi-floor shopping mall called Nakano Broadway. The complex itself may be worn and decaying, but the dedicated fans of pop-cultural properties of yesteryear keep it alive and throbbing. It is the sort of place that beckons a certain type of forty-to-fiftysomething (or, gasp, even oldersomething) who simply must re-acquire that vintage Nintendo cartridge, Gundam kit, Chogokin robot toy, or original Ultraman kaiju from 1966. This is in contrast to Akihabara, once Tokyo’s electronics district, now a pilgrimage spot for younger fans of up-to-the-moment manga and anime hits.
Nakano Broadway is an interesting spot specifically because it is so untamed. In an essay I translated for Nippon.com several months back, historian Shoichi Hasegawa explains how Broadway was, at the time of its opening in 1966, touted as “the greatest building in Asia.” This might surprise those familiar with the space today. Its series of concentric, windowless corridors, jam-packed with vendors of everything from used Rolexs to vintage cereal premiums to hardcore porn, feel more like a blackmarket than a jewel of Asia. Though that is entirely the draw to fans. Of which I am most certainly one — of the cereal premiums, anyway, more than the Rolexes or the porn. It’s this sorta-pirate, but not actually pirate atmosphere that makes Broadway such a tourist pull. These days you’re as likely to hear Chinese or English or French spoken in those musty halls as Japanese.
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How did it get this way? “Retail spaces were initially only offered for sale, but as the original owners began selling their properties, the ownership grew increasingly diverse,” explains Hasegawa. “As new owners then began subletting to new tenants, it quickly became more and more difficult, and eventually impossible, to manage them all.” Broadway retains its atmosphere precisely because nobody is in charge. The downside is that Broadway is slowly crumbling into disrepair after fifty-seven years of benign neglect, because nobody can agree on how to renovate it. But that’s its upside, too. Expectations (and rents) for the retail spaces are low, encouraging weirdos — and I mean that as a superlative — of all stripes to set up shops.
One is the polarizing pop-artist Takashi Murakami, of “Superflat” fame, who relocated his entire business operation to Broadway in 2016. In the interest of full disclosure, I have tangled with Murakami previously. In a 2015 article for the New Yorker, I exposed the “lolita complex” subtexts in a music video that a member of his collective produced for Pharrell Williams’ song “It Girl.” This provoked a furious response from Murakami online. You can read about this tempest in a teapot, if so inclined, in the magazine of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. Though it lacks the best part, which happened after the follow-up essay was published. Murakami and I ran into each other — in Broadway, of course — and he harangued me for five straight minutes about how much trouble my article had caused him and the video’s director, “Mr.” It apparently didn’t faze Mr.’s publicist, though, who reached out to me last year in hopes of more coverage. Shrug.
Whatever my personal feelings about Murakami’s work, I will be eternally grateful to him for setting up a much-needed nonsmoking boutique coffee shop on the second floor of Broadway. Until its arrival, the only other options were drab eateries with a nicotine-smoke haze so entrenched that it was practically another member of the staff. In its initial incarnation, Murakami’s “Bar Zingaro” was a franchise of the (excellent!) Fuglen coffee mini-empire, replacing the chain’s usual hygge chic with superflat characters lifted from Murakami’s many fashion brand collaborations. The art never did much for me, but the coffee was superb, the service great, and the bright and clean atmosphere a (literal) breath of fresh air. Alas, it closed soon after Murakami declared that he was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy in 2020. A very sadness story, as Murakami put it. For him and Broadway coffee-lovers both.
But no! Several months ago, this long-shuttered space re-opened. And in a totally different form. Coffee Zingaro, as it is now known, is a simulacrum of an Invader Room — the name for the proto-arcades that sprung up in Japanese cities in 1978 through about 1980, when the “Space Invaders” video game craze swept the world. Once the proprietors of kissaten (coffee shops) realized that they could make far more money from customers dropping coins into the games than by selling java, they hastily rearranged their spaces to accommodate dozens of the machines. Some made so much money that even started giving their signature beverage away for free. Today, the only remnant of this planetwide boom is the emoji 👾 dwelling in our font-sets, like the cosmic background radiation from a pop-cultural supernova.
Or was, until the Murakami machine mined history for this latest consumer venture. But Coffee Zingaro isn’t a precise replica of an Invader Room. It is a subtle reimagining. The disco balls glitter above just like they used to, but there was never, I suspect, a Zen rock-garden in any real Invader Room. The grubby, densely patterned dark carpets of Showa (those who know, know) have been replaced with similarly patterned linoleum flooring; the crappy vinyl seats of yesteryear are redesigned to clean and comfortable; and nary an overflowing ashtray is to be seen. If there’s any bummer for a nerd like me, it is that the cocktail cabinets that serve as tables are all modern reproductions rather than vintage specimens. And that Zingaro charges a whopping 500 yen a play. Five hundred yen! Japanese arcade games have always been ludicrously expensive — 100 yen as opposed to the 25 cent standard in the States — but five hundred yen! Even at the shockingly weak 145 yen to the dollar exchange rate of the moment that’s like, like, three fifty a play! (He exclaimed in his best nine-year-old begging for quarters from his parents voice.)
Even if you don’t play a single game (I didn’t!) Coffee Zingaro is worth a visit. You will not find a better replica of an Invader Room anywhere else in Japan. And if you’re like me, you’ll get to wrestle with an existential connundrum as you sip the (still good) coffee while watching the spaceships of “Xevious” make another bombing run on the tabletop below. How is it that I share the aesthetic sensibilities of a guy whose art does almost nothing for me?
Coffee Zingaro translates a forgotten episode of Japan’s pop-cultural heritage into a carefully curated space. And to seeming success: a stream of tourists dropped in during the hour or so I was there. Is this a hint of things to come? I can imagine a not-so-distant future, where an aging Japan returns to the well of its youthful past again and again, repackaging old moments for legions of foreign visitors who mistake them for the real thing. But then again, when you’ve got Nakano Broadway, who needs reality?