Ai My Maid Froyo Party at Tutti Frutti, Covent Garden 12/10/13

Ai My Maid Froyo Party (12-10-13)

Her ears twitch before every movement.

The light flickers atop a mole’s safety helmet and she strikes out with a small plastic baton. Neither of us is quite clear on the rules of the game, yet it seems I am losing by default, my skill at striking small plastic rodents with a small plastic blunt instrument somehow lacking.

Around us there is an array of tables and chairs waited on by the staff of maid café venture Ai My Maid, each one dressed in a uniform of pink, white, and red, entertaining their goshujinsama (“masters”) with games, delivering drinks—each one presented with a cute, magical spell in which visitors are encouraged to assist—as well as hosting raffle competitions for copies of the new Nintendo 3DS titles Pokémon X and Y. As part of the celebration of the release of these new games, visiting goshujinsama are awarded small stickers relating to the Gym Badges seen in the franchise when playing games with the maids, an incentive that is unnecessary but certainly inspiring.

Around us the soundtrack for various Pokémon games filters through the speakers.

I raise my small plastic baton again, still trying to understand how it is possible for me to be so bad at a simple game of Whac-a-Mole.

Maid Mei’s fluffy white cat ears twitch again.

I’m not making this up.

Hosted by self-service frozen yoghurt venue Tutti Frutti on Bedford Street, just down from Covent Garden, the Ai My Maid Froyo Party ~ A WILD MAID APPEARS! event is the first of several standalone events planned by the café and hosted by different venues in the city. The Pokémon theme is a cute addition to proceedings, a way of attracting interest via the promise of winning a copy of the new game as well as adding casual structure in the way that the event is presented.

At the very start, I am greeted by maid Yuko standing upstairs with staff from Tutti Frutti and am then directed downstairs where butler Kenji presents me with a loyalty card, a small pack featuring a number of Pokémon trading cards, and a special game card which I can complete by challenging the maids and butlers to various games and winning the various aforementioned Gym Badges. The atmosphere is friendly and inviting, with little of the awkwardness and discomfort that is sometimes associated with such events, indeed with the mythos of maid cafés in general.

It is this difference that makes the event such a positive experience.

Ai My Maid (Maid Mei)With Ai My Maid there is a genuine focus on interacting with guests rather than reducing them to the role of audience members at an uncomfortable talent concert. This in itself is something that makes both the organisers and maids of the café unique. Each member of the group is approachable and involved in the event, their personalities being the decisive factor, and whilst each maid is a character role of sorts, an invocation of the tropes and mannerisms popularised by years of imported Japanese cartoons and borrowed pop culture, it is the willingness to communicate rather than stand back or dictate.

This is not an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo!

Our game of Whac-a-Mole concludes with the quiet assumption of my defeat, an event only marginally better than my crushing defeat when it comes to playing Pop-Up Pirate.

Maid Mei‘s mechanical Nekomimi cat ears twitch once again.

The far table is littered with recognisable board games, a tower of nostalgic titles familiar from childhood—Jenga, a variant of Hungry, Hungry Hippos, Buckaroo, Operation, and countless others. As well as traditional games, there is also a Wii and a PS3 set up for guests to play against the maids or challenge other guests.

The list of games available is impressive and even inclusive of one of the Call of Duty titles. It is this contrast that is instantly appealing, the disparity between the cuteness of each of the maid’s characters and a decidedly brutal first-person shooter rooted in the fantastical reinvention of historical post-World War II military conflict.

This sort of juxtaposition is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Ai My Maid; the contrast of such a Japanese ideal with a slightly wry but notably British sense of humour.

Standing with a friend of mine, taking in the ad-hoc setting and the unique clientele, we speak briefly about the differences between traditional Japanese maid cafés and the Ai My Maid Froyo Party, noting the little cultural differences and commenting on that sense of humour in the way that the organisers have arranged the event.

‘This is the way in which we have made another culture our own,’ I think to myself, noting each of the Japanese nom de plumes present on the badges, a stylistic move that could be construed as equal parts pseudonym and courtesy name.

Watching maid Emi still manage to appear graceful whilst engaged in a round of Chubby Bunny with a guest (despite her mouth being filled with marshmallows), speaking with maids Ruriko and Yuko on the stairs leading down to the lower floor, watching butler Kouhei embroiled in a bitter game of Connect 4 with a challenger intent on gaining all the stickers for his game card; these are the small things that make an event such as this so charming, little details that serve as symbols for the way we have remade a foreign ideal.

It is impressive that the maids of Ai My Maid have established themselves with such ease as a group who are both approachable and playful. Despite my awkwardness in such situations, I felt instantly a sense of affinity within the staff, the atmosphere always welcoming—it is these differences that I believe will make a venture such as Ai My Maid more approachable to a wider audience, one for whom there may still be reservations about the idea of maid cafés and what exactly it is they suggest.

Whilst Ai My Maid is currently very specific with its niche audience, I genuinely believe that props such as this Pokémon theme will help them expand and find a big audience amongst the transitory gatherings of the city’s centralised tourist areas.

Two young boys appear at the railings, standing on the stairs and looking down at the event—the bright costumes, the colourful array of board games and the widescreen TVs—and I wonder briefly how I would have reacted to an event such as this when I was younger.

They retreat slowly and with regret, returning upstairs with considerable reluctance and many questions. Smiling quietly to myself, I wonder if they will be present at the next event.

Highly recommended, the Ai My Maid Froyo Party ~ A WILD MAID APPEARS! event is a perfect example of a maid café in a British setting done right.

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