As MGM Resorts eyes Japan, elaborate Kabuki show debuts at Bellagio fountains on Vegas Strip

Las Vegas can be many things to many people, but MGM Resorts International wants leaders and visitors from Japan to know its resorts are more than gambling hubs.

The company, which has long sought to build a resort-casino in Japan, is hosting an elaborate "Kabuki Spectacle" this weekend on the Las Vegas Strip. Singers and dancers will perform the ancient Japanese storytelling art as the Bellagio fountains function as a massive watery movie screen behind them, displaying animated scenes.

MGM's desire to build a resort-casino in Japan — a market that could rival Macau as a lucrative Asian gambling destination — has been no secret. But Japanese lawmakers first would need to legalize casinos, a prospect that appears no closer to happening after several years of debate.

Supporters argue the Las Vegas-style resorts that offer other entertainment in addition to gambling would boost tourism in Japan. Opponents in a more socially conservative political party have said it would lead to higher rates of gambling addiction and criminal activity.

MGM Resorts isn't alone in its pursuit. Wynn Resorts Ltd., Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Caesars Entertainment Corp. at one time have all expressed interest in investing billions in casino-resort projects there. None have been quite as vocal about their Japan plans as MGM, though, said Fitch Ratings analyst Alex Bumazhny.

Building casinos in Japan would be more expensive than elsewhere, with higher costs for labor and construction materials, Bumazhny said. But the expected revenue could be bigger than other Asian markets, such as Singapore.

"It's a large developed economy with no casino gambling at this point" and residents who are inclined to wager, he said. Some already do with a game called Pachinko that resembles a slot machine.

In the lengthy time gambling in Japan has been debated, MGM executives have made frequent visits gaining an appreciation for Japan's arts and culture.

Alan Feldman, executive vice president of global government and industry affairs for MGM Resorts, said conversations the company has in Japan tend to focus on the betting and wagering that gave rise to the destination.

"Every conversation we have about Las Vegas immediately goes to gambling," he said.

But the company wants Japanese visitors to know the town is built on more than that, Feldman said.

For MGM Resorts, gambling accounted for 38 percent of its revenue at its U.S. hotel-casinos in 2014. Everything else it earned, not counting freebies given to loyal customers, came from hotel rooms, dining, entertaining and shopping at its U.S. properties.

Earlier this year, the company highlighted Japanese culture at the Bellagio with its first-ever Japanese-inspired garden scene at its indoor conservatory. It also partnered with artist Masatoshi Izumi on the permanent installation of four large sculptures representing earth, wind, fire and water.

The Kabuki show, "Fight with a Carp," was spawned about two years ago when well-known Kabuki production company Shochiku stopped in Las Vegas on its way back to Japan from a U.S. performance, and MGM Resorts executives took its members to the Cirque du Soleil show "KA." The companies pondered ways to present Kabuki in a new way.

Technology firm Panasonic and high-tech creative firm teamLab, both based in Japan, are sponsors and participants. Five performances are scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.