Answerman
Why Don't Promotional Anime Cafés Last Longer?

by Justin Sevakis,

Ophno Im'Portynce asks:

I notice pretty regularly on ANN that there are themed restaurants that open up in Japan, particularly around the Tokyo area. These restaurants and merchandise shops are usually anime or game based and are themed around series such as Sailor Moon and Monster Hunter. However, every time I think "Wow, I'd really love to see that some day!" my hopes are dashed when I read that the cafe or store will only be open for a week or month at most before its gone forever (the Sailor Moon Museum was a particularly soul-crushing announcement). Why do companies open these businesses for extremely popular series and then close them so soon? Is it not possible that they could be viable tourist attractions indefinitely?

One of the cooler promotional events for anime and game franchises in Japan is the themed café, a short-term pop-up restaurant (or takeover of an existing restaurant). These cafés serve food and drink that's created around items or characters in that show or game. For example, the Yowamushi Pedal Café, which was open over the summer, offered things like cheese pizza, hamburgers and curry rice modeled to look like the characters. These cafés are usually takeovers of existing restaurants (or rotate in and out of dedicated restaurants owned by an affiliated company), and last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

While these restaurants might sound really elaborate and exciting, like a theme park experience, the reality isn't quite so impressive. These cafés are usually quite small, and the food is usually overpriced and not so great. The special merchandise is often just small souvenirs like collectable coins. Most of these events involve simply putting up some poster and standees, and maybe playing some footage on a monitor. This isn't far off from how brands like Syfy take over local restaurants and bars in the Gaslamp district around San Diego Comic Con.

These are small-scale affairs, that are intended to promote the series or game rather than actually build a sustainable business. Most fans who attend will only ever feel the need to go there once. The idea is that the restaurant is yet another piece of a big pop culture phenomenon to get fans excited. It's like a more elaborate version of a movie-branded McDonalds Happy Meal, but only at one specific restaurant. It's nice that there are customers, but the event is there only to support a larger project.

The pop-ups that are held at dedicated spaces, such as Namco's Cafe & Bar Characro chain, are a little more elaborate, and often have special events and screenings. But again, attractions rotate in and out quite frequently, because the spaces are meant to promote whatever's hot and new at that particular moment. The vast majority of franchises don't have much staying power anyway, especially in Japan, so these events are but fleeting moments of pop culture ephemera. And once that franchise fades from view, the reason for that café to exist ceases to be.

If you're in Japan, you should definitely try to stop by one of these cafés. They are fun, and definitely worth checking out. But don't plan your entire trip around one, because you never know what's going to be available by the time you get over there.


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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.


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