There’s a lot to be said about the endeavours Ufotable has set out on across the past 10 years. Assembling a staff of digital compositors and 3D artists has made the studio a fan favourite. With the beautiful imagery in shows like Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works and Tales of Zestiria the X, it’s no wonder Ufotable has such a dedicated following.
“Do you know Fate?” a voice from behind us asked in Japanese.
Old wooden boards covered the walls and floor of the peaceful cafe. We were the only visitors. Across one wall played an anime episode and another was a cluster of Ufotable related merchandise. Plush dolls and drawings of their most popular characters made up a joyful celebration of the studio.
“This is where the Fate anime was drawn,” says the waiter, gesturing to empty tables.
This was Machi✰Asobi Cafe and last year, it was the Ufotable studio, where the team originally developed the ensemble of digital approaches that set them apart from every other studio in the industry.
Some people remember 2007 as the year Ufotable released their first film in the Garden of Sinners series. However, Ufotable fans in Tokyo will remember it as the time they were welcomed inside the studio itself. With a whole new following, thanks to their high profile anime productions, they developed the first floor of their studio building into a cafe. The idea was that creators could walk down after a hard morning of work, enjoy a drink and chat with anime fans.
But it became much more than that. Fans swarmed to the newly opened cafe, filling seats immediately. The studio CEO even remarked that there were times when customers were having to wait 6 hours to be allowed inside. What was originally a fun idea to motivate the staff and engage fans had become a phenomenon.
Switching events every month, the cafe is currently themed around the upcoming Katsugeki TOUKEN RANBU, even going so far as to screen the first episode for paying customers a month before its TV debut. As long as you have a spare 2500 yen (23 USD) to purchase the set menu, you can join the club of anime viewers who have watched the debut of Ufotable’s latest production, but have nobody to talk about it with.
The Ufotable Cafe phenomenon inevitably expanded to new fan-centric ventures. Two more Ufotable Cafes opened in Nagoya and Tokushima. A more up-market establishment known as “Ufotable Dining” was set up in Shinjuku. And one of the biggest anime fan events outside of Tokyo was created, known as Machi✰Asobi (lit: Play City).
In many regards, Ufotable itself is a series of success stories. A series of expansions beyond simply creating anime that allows the studio to connect with fans in ways that others can’t or won’t, and the latest in this series of expansions is perhaps the most dramatic. After relocating their entire production studio, Ufotable changed the second floor of the original building into a different cafe.
Opened in 2017, Machi✰Asobi Cafe is an alternative option to the more popular option downstairs. Whilst fans booked their seating times weeks in advance at the Ufotable Cafe, we relished in the experience of eating a cheesecake in the place where some of our favourite shows had been created. The cafe makes no secret of its roots, with pictures of the studio just a year earlier placed on the walls and a bold sign on the door, proudly exclaiming “UFOTABLE”.
Despite the downstairs establishment pushing for Katsugeki TOUKEN RANBU, Machi✰Asobi Cafe runs entirely independently (currently, it’s promoting Akashic Records of Bastard Magic Instructor). It’s far less popular, but it lacks the aggressive marketing of many other event cafes. Despite being surrounded by merchandise, the waiter hasn’t gestured to any of it or made any other attempt to get more money out of us. It’s all too common to be forced to buy expensive meal sets or ushered towards overpriced merchandise in these establishments, but the new cafe refuses to desecrate the former production studio.
If you’re ever in Tokyo, it may seem tempting to dive headfirst into the famous Ufotable Cafe, but I can’t recommend heading upstairs to the Machi✰Asobi Cafe enough. It has all the makings of a traditional event cafe, but with the comfort of a small independent establishment. Ufotable Cafe reached a new level of popularity, spiralling into something much larger than they could have imagined, but this is back to humble beginnings. A small hidden away establishment that hasn’t yet been bombarded by thousands of fans desperate for a seat.