It’s 6:45 on a Thursday evening in Manhattan’s East Village. A tall blonde man who looks to be in his 30s is standing outside the mural-covered entrance to a five-story red brick building on the south side of East 4th Street. A group of firefighters and companions show their e-tickets and pass through a small Japanese kitchen where the kitchen staff is rolling sushi and preparing other East Asian small plates. As what appears to be a double date of twenty-somethings files in behind the larger group, a performance group of 10-plus alternates between serving drinks, chatting with attendees and getting ready for a performance that American audiences can only see in Chicago or New York City. Seats are not assigned, but one member of the performance group will escort guests to their picnic-style tables.
Like many Batsu performances at this now dedicated space, this one is sold out. The performance room, which was already dimly lit with blue lights, goes dark as a ballet-style dancer does a quick performance before the games begin. For the next two hours, four Batsu comedy warriors will take turns with updated versions of games that have been around for hundreds of years. Freestyle raps and comedic roasts are just a couple of examples. The common thread is punishment for the losers. After all, the Japanese word batsu translates to “punishment.” These punishments range from electric shock and being paintball targets to being whipped by a dominatrix and putting hands in a tray of mousetraps. And although a winner will be crowned at the end of the show, none will walk off unscathed.
Some audience members participate in the games, with one impressing (or grossing out) his friends by drinking soy sauce from the belly button of a Batsu warrior. But most of the audience is watching in awe or drinking sake (both can be done simultaneously). The Japanese food menu comes from Kogame, which is the kitchen everyone passes through to get to the performance room. While most are not coming to the Batsu show for the sushi, it’s different from most concerts, plays and sporting events, where you better eat beforehand lest your only options will be overpriced hot dogs, pretzels and beer. If you get the chance to see Chef Cho and his team preparing sushi and other Japanese small plates, you’ll notice immediately that they take the food as seriously as the show. And the food prices are not any higher than you’d pay in other East Village establishments.
Creative Producer, Co-Host and Saitama native Noriko Sato was the first to audition back in 2010. The performances started in early 2011 on the lower level of Jebon Sushi & Noodle, which was located on Saint Marks Place. After a nearly two-year shutdown, the show reemerged in February 2022 at the current space at the southwest corner of East 4th Street and 1st Avenue. (The address is 67 1st Avenue, but you enter from 133 East 4th St.)
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Associate Artistic Director and NYC Host Brian Walters has been with the group since 2012. Walters spent 17 years in Yokohama and appeared on Japanese game shows as a child. When asked if Batsu is more popular in one part of Japan than others, he is quick to point out that this style of comedy is part of Japanese culture. He also insists that Batsu-style games are in America, and we just don’t know them as such. “It’s in the spirit of improv, and Batsu games have been around for hundreds of years,” says Walters.
While the show follows a similar format from night to night, the cast members change for each performance. So even if you’ve already seen the same games, you’ll get a different show each time, as winners and losers change just like the competition itself. With that said, the group has done all-female casts during Women’s Month and had an all-AAPI cast as recently as May 24.
When asked if any training is required to join the group, Chief Financial Officer Eric Robinson is quick to point out that it takes a special kind of performer to be able to pull off Batsu. While audience members could participate in certain games, Robinson says that the skill and experience required to work a room of sake-fueled jaded New Yorkers can’t be learned overnight. As a result, cast openings are rare. With that said, at least four marriages and a nearly equal number of births have resulted from the relationships built over the past 12 years. Couples have met, fallen in love, married and had children after connecting through Batsu.
After the Thursday show, those same Batsu warriors who spent nearly two hours being electrocuted, whipped and having their fingers crushed in mouse traps mingle among the audience in the same way future punk rock icons may have mixed with fans after a gig at CBGB. Once the show is complete, there’s little separation between the audience and performers, and the same people who seemed fearless as they were being shot with paintball guns trade stories with curious and appreciative audience members.
While the groups are New York and Chicago-based, mini-tours have gone as far as Las Vegas. This August, the group will be heading over to Scotland to perform at the 2023 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where Batsu will be one of the headliners.
Tickets are $45 for standard and $75 for VIP. Neither option includes food, but VIP will earn you random visits from the “sake ninja.” New York shows run an average of five nights per week, with back-to-back evening performances on weekends. In contrast, Chicago shows run twice a week, with plans to start a third later in 2023.
Fortunately, for everyone else, you can do as the Queen song says and play the game at home, BATSU! The Punishment Card Game is available via the website and at the theater. That said, mouse traps, shock collars and paintball guns are not included.
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