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Sunday, November 16, 2008

A serious research on Akihabara maids

Uploaded by kalandrakas

As I've mentioned before, during the past week, I've been doing some research for my new short film, like watching Hong Sang-Soo films.

Despite the improvisational nature of my film shoots, I tend to make sure I have an actual script first. And I managed to turn in the first draft of the script last night. There was something lacking. The early feedback I've gotten were somewhat lukewarm, those who liked it liked it for its premise and atmosphere (two lonely souls wandering through empty streets at night, talking, haunted by memories of lost love and missed opportunities, unspoken words etc.) than the actual content.

Ming Jin pointed out that the story needs to be fleshed out more, and it's something I need to draw my own experiences from. Also, more research has to be done as well. The former is hard because I'm (relatively?) young, and I normally rely more on my creativity and imagination for stories.

But because my new film is a totally different thing altogether, a different approach has to be adopted. That's my whole point about making short films, to be able to experiment with various styles and forms when it comes to narration, a luxury that might be denied when making an actual feature film.

I was already planning to go to Akihabara (the entire story is set there) to look at the locations. To experience its actual atmosphere at night, spots where I can shoot the film, and whether it's as empty and desolate as I like to make a good shooting environment.

Then I also wanted to observe the maids (read about Cosplay restaurants if you really don't know what they are) working at the streets. They are always there, handing out leaflets or packets of tissue.

Uploaded by stevetoronto

(I always thought that maids in Akihabara are like geishas in Kyoto.)

Also, the female protagonist is meant to be an Akihabara maid.

The reason why I picked this job for the character has more to do with the normal perception people have of them, than my personal fetish fascination for maid costumes (which isn't exactly zero, mind you). Too many times, I felt that they are objects of ridicule for most Japanese people, they tend to think that these maids embody everything that's wrong or messed up about the otaku (geek) culture.

But who are they?

As in, who are the people behind the costumes? With the whole subservient role stripped off? Are they not normal people just doing some part-time job?

Because maid cafes had always been so costly, and because of language barrier problems, I never bothered to visit one. But I remember vividly that at the streets of Akihabara, there are always maids giving out flyers about 'maid tours', where people pay a whopping amount of 10 000 yen to have a maid hang out with them for an hour. Kinda like an escort service, but without the sex. From description, it's more like going to karaokes, dinner, drinks etc. (basically a bunch of stuff you really CAN'T do properly in an hour.)

When I pondered about my script earlier, I had wondered whether I would try to pay for such a service so that I can have an hour to interview a maid. But 10 000 yen... that's nearly half of my total monthly expense, gone within an hour? 10 000 yen, I could buy so many things with it!

A friend of mine who was with me when a maid was explaining the tour to us had once commented that with that sort of price, it's better to visit a brothel.

As I walked out of the Akihabara station just now, and into the entrance of Akihabara Electric Town. The shops were mostly closed, or closing, and I was greeted by the sight of some maids lining up the streets, giving out leaflets.

Maids outside Akihabara station
Uploaded by cyn

I approached one and took the leaflet, allowing her to explain the maid tours and their services.

And then, in halting Japanese, I replied that I'm a filmmaker from Malaysia, and my Japanese sucks, but I really want to do a research on maids because they are the subjects of my new film. The two maids were surprised, and one of them could speak English very well due to some previous connections with Malaysia (which I will not go into detail for the sake of protecting the identity of my source).

With my usual affable charm, I said that I really needed to know more about their jobs, and the maid said that she was more than willing to help... if I were to pay the rates for the maid tour, then they could take me to a Maid Cafe.

"How about McDonald's?" I grinned helplessly. "I'll buy you two food and drinks."

"Well, you still have to pay the rates." She said politely and cheerily.

"I see." I nodded solemnly.

"You can arrange an appointment either through phone, or through email! Just ask for our names!" She said helpfully. Pointing at the phone number, site URL and email address on the meidoleaflet she just handed me, they were her company's.

Gradually, I started to have an inkling how they worked, so I handed the leaflet back to her and asked them [well, I won't divulge much here either, how I do my detective work is meant to be kept mysterious so that it makes me seem cooler for you readers], and at the same time, I started a casual conversation, beginning with her experience in Malaysia (by then, only one, who could speak English well, was staying back to talk to me while the other went back to handing out leaflets), and the nature of their jobs.

I doubt our conversation lasted more than ten minutes, but it was pretty educational. What I managed to learn was that:

1) There are two types of (working) maids in Akihabara. One are those who work in a maid cafe. The other, like her, don't. They 'work the streets', finding people who are interested in the maid tours. They are around from afternoon to midnight. And all these while I thought these maid tours were additional services from maid cafes. I was wrong.

2) At most times, only women from 18 to 28 could apply jobs as maids. (I wonder what aging Akihabara maids are like, are they tragic figures like those hot spring geishas in Kawabata's SNOW COUNTRY? Personifications of wasted beauty?)

3) There are normally two maids in maid tours. Probably for security.

4) The maid talking to me was pretty cute. She also gave me a preferred day of the week when I should make an appointment with her for the maid tour.

5) A slip of tongue made her reveal that she's studying [I will not reveal it either] at a university not too far away from mine. And what she was studying was rather unexpected.

I thanked her and walked off, slightly more enlightened. And feeling a loneliness that I've never felt before.

(Just kidding about the last sentence. That was an Akutagawa reference.)

But now that I'm armed with these new information, I wonder whether I should just let my own imagination do the rest of the work, basing the character on the girl I met, or should I pursue this research further. Yet to pay for 10 000 yen for only an hour of interview is... wow.

Maybe I should just look for anyone who knows anyone who worked/works at as a maid in Akihabara, and is willing to be interviewed for a lower price.

UPDATED (January 12th, 2012): Almost 3 years have passed. I ended up making my film a few months after this was posted. The film was called Kingyo. It premiered at the 66th Venice Film Festival.

Thanks to the research I made, I was able to depict the cosplay maids in a more respectful manner. I never saw the maid again, nor did I visit Akihabara as much as I did before. To pay homage to the girl who gave me so much invaluable information that night, I named my film's protagonist (played by Luchino Fujisaki) after her. The back story of Luchino's character was also very much inspired by this mysterious maid I met.

I wonder what happened to her.