JAPAN : Hollywood Samurai 

Samurai Hollywood

Kyoto’s Toeï Movieland

 

Text and photography by Eric Pasquier

 

The Toeï Movieland in Kyoto is the Japanese equivalent of Universal Studios, except instead of King Kong and Jaws, film fans flock to see sword fighting samurai, lashings of fake blood and gaggles of geishas rustling around in silk kimonos, while the cameras swoop in and out in search of the best shots. ERIC PASQUIER gets in on the action and mingles with the extras on the medieval-style set.


Want to wander through the streets of medieval Japan, watch samurai sword-play and ninjas on the roof, check out the three-headed monster rearing above the trees? Kyoto’s Toei Uzumasa Eigamura, aka Toei Movieland, is a theme park with a difference. A fully-operational film studio, which mainly produces period films and samurai TV shows, it allows visitors to wander round its back lot. So you get to walk along the dusty streets of feudal Japan and watch samurais in their glinting armour alongside kimono-clad, powder-faced geishas.

Some 30-40 productions shoot here every year. The studios were built in 1951, at a cost of ¥500m (4 million euros), with almost ¥13bn (111million euros) spent on them since then. There are 100 full-time employees. Many Japanese people flock to the studios to see the films they watch at home being made.

They stand in large excited groups with cameras poised , hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite star.

 

A sign prepares you for the thrill you are about to experience: “Toei Movieland is a movie set. In order not to disturb the work of the actors, please listen attentively to your guide’s instructions.”

As you make your way around the 18 different sets, you have to respectfully step aside when a shoot is in progress.

The guides make sure you keep your distance – and your mouth shut – when the cameras are rolling.

 

Kyoto has been the cinematographic capital of Japan since 1897, and the perpetual Japanese interest in samurai films seems to be a kind of nostalgia for the way Japan used to be. Samurai dramas are to the Japanese what Westerns are to Americans.

Put simply, their popularity lies in the knowledge that the good guys always win while the evil ones get vanquished.

 

Toei Movieland offers a taste of old Japan, kitsch-style – from its fantasyland settings to superb historical reproductions.

Many of the open sets reproduce the street scenes of the Edo period (1603-1867), and extras walk about in authentic costumes.

You marvel at its artificial mountains and lakes, replicas of old towns and virgin forests with giant monsters emerging from lunar landscapes.

 

As a contrast to this eerily realistic step back in time, the Rivie cinema brings things bang up to date. You sit on mobile seats watching virtual images and 3-D pictures created by computer graphics.
Fans of Saturday morning cartoons will want to see the Japanese animation corner, as Toei is a leader in the Japanese animation industry. Toei Animation, part of the Toei Group since 1956, is Asia’s largest animation house, with hit cartoons including the Dragonball, Digimon and the Power Rangers.

Other entertainment includes live character shows in the Noh theatre and a Ninja show, in which a female ninja in sparkly silver tights performs gymnastics to an accompaniment of screams and shrieks. This show is particularly popular with western audiences – and has been even more so since the phenomenal success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000.

 

There are also frequent stunt and special effects shows. The best is found by wandering down winding paths towards a clearing of medieval surroundings. Chairs are lined up in front of a small cluster of rocks with a creek running through it and you’re invited to sit down. As you watch, smoke begins to seep from the rocks, the creeks begin to rage and the ground shakes and splits apart, spewing mist and smoke into the sky. As a finale, an animatronics sea monster with a gigantic horned head rises up, to gasps and applause from the audience.

 

For the kids, there’s plenty of interactive entertainment, such as fan or porcelain painting. Or enter the costume studio, where you can dress up in a kimono or other traditional costume and have your picture or video taken.

 

During recent years, more and more rides and attractions have been added to Toei Movieland to compete with the growing number of amusement parks that are springing up all over the country and to help justify its admission fee of ¥2,200 (just under 19 euros) for adults, half price for kids.

 

A recent addition for 2002 is a haunted house. Although it costs an extra ¥500 (4 euros) to get in, this is a superior kind of attraction – no plastic skeletons and nylon spiders’ webs here. This is a proper display dedicated to Japanese history. You walk through rooms filled with relics of Japanese folklore, such as zombies, skeletons, ghosts and a myriad of monsters. On the way, of course, various ghouls and nasty things leap out at you, so that the air becomes thick with schoolgirl shrieking and nervous giggles. The final room is definitely not recommended if you’re really, really jumpy. You find yourself at an apparent dead end with no visible entrance or exit – just a silent, immobile suit of samurai armour that waits and waits and waits...

 

Toei Movieland isn’t just an amusement park. A vast collection of items and accessories relating to the history of the Japanese film industry are on display in the Museum of Japanese Film, the symbolic heart of Toei Movieland. A section of the museum called ‘Eiga no Dendo’, meaning ‘The Sanctuary of Film’, celebrates the memory of all those who contributed to the development of Japanese cinema: directors, producers, screenwriters and actors. Here you can retrace the beginnings of the careers of actors such as the internationally renowned Takakura Ken who starred in Black Rain and discover which directors began their careers at Toei, such as Shohei Imamura, the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes 1997 with The Eel and Akira Kurosawa, best known for The Seven Samurai (1954).

 

Kyoto’s close relationship with cinema began over a century ago, when Inahata Katsutaro, from Kyoto, received a grant to study film in Paris, where the Lumiere brothers were bringing cinematography to Europeans. Inahata met Auguste Lumiere, and obtained the right to promote cinematography throughout Asia.

 

Inahata believed that cinema was the best medium for introducing contemporary European culture into Japan. His first cinematographic presentation took place in Kyoto in February 1897, and was an enormous success.

 

After Inahata left the film business, a man called Yokota Einosuke took over, as the first promoter of the Japanese film industry. Yokota bought many films from the French film company Pathe, and as the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 broke out, he completely monopolised the importation of the latest newsreel-type coverage from the front, while continuing to distribute new films throughout Japan.

 

After the war, Yokota tried to promote advertising films in Japan. He gave this assignment to Makino Shozo, the young director of the Senbonza Theater in Nishijin. This was to be the beginning of Japanese film production proper.

 

Proud of the large number of films either produced by Makino Productions or imported from the French company Pathe, Yokota Einosuke opened his first cinema in Tokyo, a second in Osaka, and finally a third in Kyoto, in February 1908. Historical re-enactments, love stories and ‘chivalry films’ in costumes from the Edo era were huge hits, and formed the basis of the Japanese film industry’s success for the first half of the century.

 

At the time of the Japanese film industry’s development, the three main studios of Kyoto – Shochiku, Daiei and Toei – produced half of the country’s films. Kyoto became the Hollywood of Japan. The film stars that could be seen around town gave the city an aura of glamour. Powdered beauties and young newcomers with the frightful regard of the samurai warrior could be seen in their sumptuous costumes on their way from one studio to another. At night, their prestigious silhouettes attracted crowds in the most fashionable of the city’s haunts.

 

It is this golden age of the production houses which is celebrated at Toei Movieland. Although many film companies faced financial difficulties in the 1950s, Toei survived thanks mainly to the production of period dramas and propaganda films against the evils of the Japanese military regime in World War II.

 

Although Universal Studios recently opened not far from Kyoto, with enormous crowds flooding the place, visitors come to Toei Movieland to imagine what Kyoto was really like in times gone by.

 

Copyright © Eric Pasquier

All rights reserved.