When you think of performing arts in Kyoto, what comes to mind? The traditional painted faces of kabuki theater. The solemn rigidity of classical religious noh plays. Maybe even an expert demonstration of the matcha tea ceremony. Those are all well and good if you want to experience traditional Japanese culture, but I'm going to tell you that the best live performance in Kyoto is all about four robots. Four breakdancing, juggling, acrobatic robots.
Oh, and a doll that comes to life and twirls batons.
The non-verbal show Gear is one of the most impressive live performances I've ever seen. First and foremost, it defies what you expect to find in Kyoto and injects some youthful creativity into a city known for conservative tradition when it comes to art. Gear feels more like something you'd encounter on a backstreet of the youthful Harajuku fashion district of Tokyo, or in a basement experimental art space at the end of graffiti-covered tunnel in gritty Osaka. The fact that a show like this has thrived in Kyoto since 2012 is something of an oddity, and it speaks to the quality and appeal of the production itself. Gear is well on its way to becoming a staple of Kyoto entertainment and art culture, and it fully deserves all the attention it has been getting from locals and foreign visitors.
Gear provides an engaging two-hour performance without the use of any spoken dialogue. The small cast works together to construct a minimalist story that is really more about character relationships than any plot. As the events unfold, each of the four android characters is given their own moments to demonstrate a specific performing art. Without spoiling too much, you'll see expert demonstrations of miming, acrobatics, magic, breakdancing, and other impressive physical feats. I cannot stress enough how incredibly talented these performers are. It was hard to choose what pictures to use for this blog, because I don't want to give away some of the surprises that you'll encounter in Gear. Some of the tricks these actors pull off are truly unique, and there were several moments where the audience collectively gasped in astonishment at what we were seeing.
When each cast member gets their moment in the spotlight, you keep saying "Oh, this guy is the best one" and then "Wait, she's definitely the most talented" and later "No no, THIS guy is the best." You end up realizing that the group as a whole is breathtakingly talented and works well together to highlight and enhance each other's talents. The doll character is equally impressive, and while her routine certainly focuses on physical talents, it's also all about how she uses costumes and scenery to display her talent. And with a rotating schedule of cast members, each performance features a different set of unique talents and specialties from each of performer with a wide variety of styles. Just when you thought you've seen all that Gear can offer, it will keep surprising you with VERY clever details and unique humor that transcends language barriers.
The setting itself is an impressive artistic piece. A public hall in a newspaper headquarters built in 1928, the place has an art deco feel on the outside and really stands out in a traditional city like Kyoto. The actual performance area is a finely detailed set with all sorts of strange mechanical embellishments and a strong steampunk vibe. During the show, the environment will shift and come to life in ways that you were not expecting when you first sat down in your seat. The dynamic centerpiece is a massive fan mounted on the back of the stage. The staff will offer you some plastic protective goggles before the show, and you'll be thinking "Oh come on, how intense can this really be?" Well, once that fan gets going and things start happening, it will be beyond what you imagined! (for the record, I don't personally think you need the goggles, but kids might enjoy putting them on to get into the excitement more)
I cannot recommend Gear highly enough. It's the perfect way to mix up your time in Kyoto and experience something unlike anything else the city has to offer. After a day of contemplative temples and quiet tea ceremonies, the funky dancing robots of Gear are exactly what you need to shake things up and work out the more lighthearted and creative half of your brain. Kids will absolutely 100% love this show, and adults will find it impressive as well.
You can find more information on the official Gear homepage. Any seat in the small theater is fine, but I think that perhaps a few rows back and in the middle would give you the best overall view of the performance space. Being in the front row can can lead to some fun moments of interaction with the performers. No matter where you sit, the theater is small enough that you feel very close to the performers and fully encapsulated in the set itself. The show sells out during busy tourism seasons, so you should reserve your tickets ahead of time online. I promise you will not be disappointed!
If you're trying to decide between Gear and the robot restaurant in Tokyo... THESE are the androids you're looking for :)