Toei Movieland Studio hadn’t been on our official itinerary, but I convinced people to give it a try even though I was the only big Japanese movie fan in the bunch. Toei had given some of my absolute favorite sci-fi superhero shows, and the chance to see one of their studios was too good for me to pass up. After shelling out a rather hefty ¥2500 per person to get in (note: this was in 2001; it is probably more now), I quickly began to realize it wasn’t going to be as cool as I’d hoped. The entrance was was a museum of samurai and ninja articles, most of them from then upcoming movie Red Shadow. A large screen television played clips of various Toei samurai movies and histories of the studio. None of it was especially interesting, unfortunately.
Once out of the main hall, however, things got better. The bulk of what you want to see is on the backlot, which contains an entire mock village from feudal Japan that is used for filming the studio’s various samurai television dramas. It’s rare to visit the studios and not catch a cast and crew busy filming scenes for something (though we suspected these filming sessions to be staged purely for the amusement of park goers). The village itself is completely open to visitors except for the parts of it that are currently being used for filming, so you can wander around the dusty alleys and back streets and really feel like you’ve just lost yourself in Edo period Japan. Makes for some good photos that will fool the friends and loved ones back home.
Scattered among the backlot’s sundry crossing paths are stunt and special effects shows, art exhibits, an animatronic sea monster that rises up out of a fake pool, a dungeon with screaming severed heads, and carnival fare like games and souvenir huts. Separated from the gang, we stumbled upon a haunted house attraction that cost ¥500 to get into. Seeing how I’d forked over nearly as much for the lame old Dante’s Inferno at Coney Island just a few weeks before, I figured it would be worth a visit.
And it was. Very cool walk-through attraction with gorgeous rooms filled with all manner of horrors from the folklore of Japan. Zombies, skeletons, ghosts, kappa, monsters I don’t even know the names for. And of course, various ghouls and bloody murder victims that leap out at you and give you a good scare. Unfortunately, a group of schoolgirls ahead of us shrieked wildly at everything, sort of tipping us off to when live actors were going to bring on the scare. The final room is a dead end with no entrance or exit visible once you go in. All there is in the bamboo and tatami room is a motionless suit of samurai armor that seems like it should jump up and scare you, but it doesn’t. It just sits there, and the anticipation grows and grows. Me, spoil it? Hardly. Suffice it to say that it’s the best damn haunted house I’ve been to, partly because it lacked any of the poorly animated gorillas that populate every haunted house at Coney, and partly because it’s simply a lavishly decorated and designed attraction full of the history and horror of Japan’s rich folklore. Best attraction in the park, in my opinion.
We wandered down more winding paths through very convincing medieval surroundings before arriving at a small cluster of rocks and trees with a creek running through it. Chairs lined up in front of the set beckoned us, so we sat and waited for what the signs promised would a be a pretty cool display of special effects. Shortly after we took our seats, smoke began erupting from the rocks, the creek began to rage, and the ground shook and split apart, spewing mist and smoke into the sky. Slowly, a gigantic horned demon head rose up from the fissures behind the rocks, and at that same moment, a train went by on the tracks running along the nearby outer wall of the backlot. So that was it! I knew I hadn’t been crazy when I caught a glimpse of that giant demon from the train on the way to Iwatayama Monkey Park!
After poking around in the gift store dedicated to the Japanese horror film The Ring, then poking around in the larger gift shop where you buy everything from Ultraman underwear to fake samurai hairdos, we headed upstairs in the main hall, where we were immediately greeted by a giant chicken sitting above a huge frying pan filled with oversized plastic fried eggs. What the hell had we just wandered into? In an adjacent room was a two story tall Kamen Rider with flashing eyes standing on a rotating base. Everywhere were virtual reality sim-rides and various novelties like the crooked house and other midway classics. Pretty amusing, but as we goofed off on each one and finally made our way back to the front to meet the guys, it had all been a bit of a letdown. Sure, it had been cool, just not ¥2500 cool.