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Monday, August 27, 2018

Exploring Japan, Vol. 12 - Maxell Aqua Park

Japan’s attractions and theme parks definitely seem strange to western visitors, but what about an aquarium?  Surely, an aquarium in Tokyo isn’t much different than an aquarium in the U.S., right?

Well, you’d be kind of correct, except for the jellyfish, the bar and the dolphin show, it pretty much is like any other aquarium.

The Maxell Aqua Park is located in the Shinagawa Prince Hotel.  It’s not a place you can kill an entire day in, but you can easily spend 3 -  4 hours here and not be bored.  Like any other aquarium, the exhibits are split up by region so you have Amazonian fish in one section, a giant tank full of sharks and rays that has a glass tunnel going through it, and lots of smaller interactive displays that show you where these animals live, what they eat and their life spans.  They also have a pretty cool series of rooms that the otters can move in and out of.  You can follow them from place to place which is pretty fun.

Almost all of the signage is in Japanese and English, however the interactive displays are in Japanese only.  There are also a couple of rides inside that you have to buy special tickets for.

Still, even without being able to read the language, the displays are fantastic.  Especially when you enter the jellyfish room.  

It’s like The Flaming Lips designed an aquarium.  Tube after tube of different jellies are positioned throughout the place and each has color changing lights that are synchronized, creating an almost psychedelic feel. 

Just beyond the Jellyfish room is something I’ve never seen at an aquarium before:  A fully stocked bar.  What makes this so unusual is that the room isn’t some fly by night concession.  It’s got a sophisticated atmosphere and check out these tables.

Those are real sea creatures inside.  Pretty cool, huh? 

Still, the thing that would bring me back here again is their dolphin show.  It’s completely indoors and features lights, music and narration that bring to mind a Cirque de Soleil show instead of the run of the mill aquarium dolphin show.  

Images are projected onto the falling water that inhance the action.  Dolphins flip, whales do tail stands and all the while, music and images float through the air.  

It’s a spectacular show, so much so that we stayed an extra hour to see it again. 

While there are better aquariums around, Maxell Aqua Park is truly unique.  It's one of the more expensive aqua parks though, so make sure you allow yourself enough time to check everything out and get your money's worth. You’ll be happy you did.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 16 - The Wolfman vs. Dracula

Continuing on last week’s theme of movies that were never made, let’s talk about the great (and not so great) monster mash films from Universal’s golden age.  After the success of Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolfman, Universal  got the bright idea of teaming up two monsters in one film.  The result was Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman, which to be fair sounds like one is welcoming the other to the neighborhood instead of actually fighting each other.  Despite a slew of troubles, it was a hit and for the next couple of films, Universal did their best to cram every monster they had onto the same screen.

House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein featured werewolves, vampires, the Frankenstein monster, hunchbacked assistants and even a Dr. Jekyll character.  They’re hilarious and charming and to be honest, they’re two of my all-time favorite movies.  There’s one obvious team up that never happened though.  What about The Wolfman vs. Dracula?

In actual fact, it almost did happen.  Even better, it was slated to star Lon Chaney Jr. (again reprising his Larry Talbot werewolf role) and the return of Bela Lugosi as the Count.  

The script was commissioned and it’s got some pretty good ideas in it.  The story involves a woman who becomes the target of Dracula’s desire; however Talbot (always the ladies’ man in any Wolfman picture) loves her also and wants to protect her.  Dracula uses his powers of transformation to become a wolf and frames Talbot for a series of murders in order to get him away from the girl he’s protecting.  Obviously, a battle ensues and the Wolfman wins.

Except he doesn’t.

One of the biggest problems with this film was the budget.  The Wolfman vs. Dracula was slated to be a color film and due to the cost of color, the budget was tight.  This made it so the Wolfman got very little screen time and instead, Larry Talbot (in human form) ends up fighting and killing Dracula while the latter is in the form of a bat.  Only afterward, does Talbot transform in what feels like a tacked on scene in the final fifteen minutes.  The Wolfman attacks the girl he loves before she shoots him with a silver bullet.

Aside from that letdown, the other thing that ultimately scuttled the film was the aforementioned bat effect.  Universal didn’t want Talbot battling an animated bat and the script required Lugosi to be suspended by wires in the (anti)climactic battle.  Lugosi was in his 60’s by this point and in no shape for those kinds of stunts.

Universal pulled the plug and threw the money at an adventure film instead.  Some stills and the script survived though.  They’re collected in Phillip J. Riley’s excellent book The Wolfman vs. Dracula which will give you the whole story.  You can find it on Amazon. 

See you next week!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Exploring Japan Vol. 11 - Namco Namja Town's Haunted Funhouse!

Last week we looked into the weird and wonderful (but mostly weird) experience that is Sanrio Puroland.  Indoor theme parks are something that Japan does very well.  

Case in point, let’s take a visit to Namco Namja Town.  It’s kind of like going to Boomers if Boomers were actually well laid out, well maintained, had crazy foods and was actually fun to go to.

So yeah, it’s nothing like Boomers.

Namja Town is made up of three “towns” according to their website, but as a foreigner who has limited understanding of what I’m seeing, the difference between the three wasn’t super distinct.  I just thought it was one big funhouse with a great  food court.

You pay an admission to get in (500 yen = a little less than $5.00 when we were there).  That pays for you to wander around and check out everything, however there are games and additional motion simulator rides and attractions you’ll pay extra for.  There is a pass you can buy that allows you to do everything but we were just there for one reason:  crazy gelato.

See, many people come to Namja Town simply for the food.  There is a large food court that specializes in gyoza (Japanese dumplings).  Next to that is an alley filled with desserts including themed pastries, soft serve ice cream and a gelato bar with 50 flavors.  What’s so special about this gelato?

Have you ever had tomato bisque gelato?  How about Cabernet Sauvignon, blue salt, tamago, five grain rice, or mugwort & red bean?  Well, here’s your chance.  You can buy a six flavor taster set for about $7.00 and it’s perfect for sharing.

Starting at the upper left and going clockwise, this was cheese, salt, banana, apple, basil and finally tomato.  My daughter absolutely hates the flavor of tomato, but felt obligated to try it.  Here was her reaction.

Why?  Because it tasted exactly like a tomato.  In fact, everything tasted exactly as described.  We got another taster with six more flavors after that and then called it quits.  That brought us to the funhouse portion of Namja Town.  The park has a mascot (as it seems every business in Japan does) named Najavu.  

Najavu is a cat and even as a foreigner, I could tell from her look that she was up to no good.  

As you enter this gate, you enter an interactive Japanese haunted house that was one of the coolest things we did while visiting.

There are doors that bang and slam as you walk past. 

Tombstones that spin around to reveal spirits.

Witches that read you fortunes before bursting into flames and ghosts that appear on the walls out of nowhere.

Long-nosed Tengu (Japanese goblins) who will cut your hand off if you reach in to grab their food.

And much, much more.  The motion simulator rides and games are in this part of the funhouse and include zombie hunts and ghostly encounters.

If I could decorate my house for Halloween with no expense spared, it would look a lot like this place and I’d be begging my wife to let me keep it all up through November.  She’s pretty cool about that stuff so I’m sure she’d agree.

Namja Town is located in the Sunshine City Mall in Ikebukuro.  It’s very easy to get to by train and if you’re a fan of Namco’s anime lineup, you can visit J-Town in the same mall.  It’s another indoor amusement park featuring rides and games based on their most popular animes.

If you do go though, be sure to save room for the gelato place and try some gyoza.  You won’t be sorry.

Next time, we'll visit an aquarium with a dolphin show that's part Sea World and part Cirque De Soliel!

See you then!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 15 - War Eagles!

For the next few weeks, I want to focus on what never was.  Sounds confusing, I know, but it’s actually a fascinating subject when it comes to movies that were almost made but didn’t quite make it to production.  It’s especially fascinating when they’re connected to big name franchises or tried and true directors/producers.

To kick things off, let’s talk about War Eagles, one of the greatest movies never made.  A few weeks back, I posted about the true story that inspired Merrian C. Cooper’s King Kong.  The gigantic success of that picture seemed to have set up Cooper to be a major player in Hollywood for years to come.  

His next picture was an action/romance film called Flying Devils that featured daring aviation stunts and a love triangle resulting in an attempted murder.  Next up was his Kong sequel, Son of Kong, which isn’t nearly as good as the original but which I love dearly anyway.  

For his next film, Cooper had a hell of an idea and he began turning the wheels to make it happen.  

The plot involved an American pilot who crashes on a mysterious island.  He soon finds that it’s overrun with dinosaurs and while that sounds familiar, this next part takes a hard left into unexplored territory.  

You see, the island is also home to a race of Vikings who have been there for generations.  They’ve learned to tame some of the local fauna, in particular giant golden eagles who they ride into battle against the dinosaurs when attacked.

What happens next is pure 1930’s Hollywood gold!  Nazi’s also land on the island only this group is using it as a staging area to launch an attack on New York.  They have a secret weapon and if it’s deployed, it will cripple America and bring Nazi rule to the States.  

The American pilot convinces the Norsemen to help him stop the invaders and a battle between Nazi fighter planes and Vikings on giant eagles ensues in the skies above New York.

Tell me you don’t want to see that.  Seriously, it would have been one hell of a movie.

How close was it to being finished? 

The script had been polished and completed. Cooper had hired on Willis O’Brien (of King Kong fame) to do the effects work and his test footage designs and sketches had all been approved. 

Articulated models had been created and yes, the image above is one that still exists.  Sets were being constructed.  It was so close that you can almost taste it, but this time around the Nazi’s won.  

World War II escalated to a point where Cooper felt compelled to reenlist.  Once that happened, the bottom fell out and after the war ended, Cooper moved on to other things.

Still, the idea has floated around in the minds of film buffs for years and it actually reached some form of completion in 2008 as a novel.  

Carl Macek (Robotech) wrote a fully realized version that you can pick up at Amazon if you’re so inclined.  

However, if you want to read the original script as well as the definitive document on the whole project, you can.  War Eagles: The Unmaking of an Epic by David Conover is a love letter to this lost film.  It collects production notes, stills, test designs and more importantly, the finished script by none other than Cyril Hume (the man behind the script for Forbidden Planet). 

I encourage you to seek it out as it’s a fascinating read that will set your mind wandering over all the things that could have been if Hitler hadn’t pulled the rug out from under Merrian C. Cooper.

See you next week!

Monday, August 13, 2018

Exploring Japan Vol 10 - The Insanity That is Hello Kitty Land!

So last week we talked about Godzilla and I mentioned that he’s harder to find than you’d think.  The same cannot be said about Hello Kitty.  She is everywhere.  You’ll see her on snack foods, clothing, advertisements, and even in PSA’s on the windows of taxi cabs and trains.  There is no escaping Hello Kitty or any of her cohorts. 

Just check out that ceiling in the train station near Sanrio Puroland.  Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, why is Cary even writing about this? 

Well, I am but one of three people who were traveling together on this trip.  Since my wife and daughter generously tolerated my Godzilla obsession, I owed them and they exacted payment in the form of a Sanrio Puroland visit.

What is Sanrio Puroland? 

It’s basically the Hello Kitty equivalent of Disneyland.  There are multiple parks across Japan but the one closest to us was in Tama New Town about a 45 minute train ride outside of Akihabara.  The entire park is indoors and there are rides, shows, a parade, games, themed foods and lots and lots of opportunities to buy Sanrio toys.

So yeah, just like Disneyland.

I know I’m making it sound like I only went along because I was paying back a debt.  That’s not entirely true.  My wife gave me an opportunity to back out but I didn’t take it.  The fact is, I knew that there would be weirdness here and honestly, I didn’t want to miss out.  Case in point, the creamery.

You may think that all ice cream just comes from cow’s milk, but you have no idea what kind of work goes into creating an ice cream cone at Sanrio Puroland.

First, there’s the cow who’s smiling even though there’s an industrial sized pipe coming from underneath her and into...

a sentient mixing bowl (who seems to be in horrible pain).  

Notice that above it there are the two very cold chickens who apparently drop eggs (shell included) into the same mixing bowl. 

After the concoction is mixed, it’s sent through to the next stage where the Goat Supervisor (I kept referring to him as the Overlord), coerces sentient jars of ingredients to drop their loads into said ice cream.

It’s all then piped over to a place where it’s put into cones.  However, next to the cone area are these guys who seem to spend all day eating fruit and getting hammered on whatever’s being poured by the guy with the two jugs just underneath Santa.  Oh yeah, the Jolly Old Elf is involved in all of this somehow. 

See?  How could I miss this?  And that's just one, tiny little area inside this giant building!  There are so many highlights I could show you.

Like the ride with the giant Seal who stares you down as you head into it.

This guy who obviously has a thing for this monkey’s butt.

Giant playsets where you can interact with Hello Kitty.

A virtual dress-up game where a guy like me can show off my feminine side.

A sad egg you can sit next to and commiserate with when you realize you’re just not pretty enough.

Another egg with a fully formed human butt for some reason. 

What is it with the butts around this place?

And speaking of butts, even the bathroom stalls are themed.  

The one thing you need to know up front though is that all of this is in Japanese.  There is very little English to be found here so if you decide to go and you don’t read or speak the language, understand that you’re going just to watch the weirdness unfold, but trust me.  There is more than enough of that to entertain you for a few hours.

If you’re on the fence about seeing this for yourself, I don’t blame you so, I’m going to let you in on my favorite part.  Inside the park, there’s a boat ride.  It takes you along on the gang’s adventures and one character is known for being a troublemaker.

Imagine my surprise when we turned a corner to find him smoking and gambling at the pachinko parlor!  It was awesome but then we turned another corner to find…

His mother had caught him and was giving him the spanking of his life!  So yeah, if you want to see some strange stuff, head to Sanrio Puroland. 

Next time around, I’ll show you another indoor funhouse/amusement park that has a cool, scary twist to it. 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 14 - King Kong Appears in Edo

What if I told you that there was a Japanese giant monster film that predates Gojira by 16 years?  If you’re a film buff, you’d probably tell me I’m full of shit, but I could show you some stills of a giant ape terrorizing Tokyo that would blow your mind.

Not so sure I’m wrong now?  Well, to be honest you’d still be correct.  Technically, I’m full of shit, but those stills tell a fun story.

When the film industry first boomed in the U.S., a series of studios sprung up that are affectionately referred to as “poverty row”.  They created cheap, quick films that tended to try to cash in on whatever the latest movie craze was at the time.  The film industry in Japan was no different and in 1938, Zensho Cinema was one such company.  They were so cheap that even after the invention of sound, they continued to produce silent films all the way up until their demise in 1941.  So why would a cheapo movie studio even consider taking on the expense of a movie that required special effects?

The answer is simple:  King Kong.

In 1938, King Kong was getting a Japanese release.  Zensho knew this and commissioned a quickie film about a man whose daughter is kidnapped.  The villain who kidnapped her did so with the help of a trained pet gorilla named… 

wait for it… 

wait for it…

King Kong.

The only problem is the gorilla isn’t a giant.  It’s just a normal gorilla.  I won’t bore you with the details of the rest of the plot.  You can find that on Wikipedia. 

Zensho titled the film King Kong Appears In Edo and to drum up the connection with the American film, they produced stills that make the ape appear king-sized.  These were used in all of the advertisements of the time, leading moviegoers to believe they were paying for a special effects extravaganza when in fact it was a drama with a normal sized (though admittedly murderous) gorilla.

The film has since been lost and all that remains are the stills, so those who find them and don’t know the story can be forgiven for thinking that Gojira wasn’t the first giant monster to terrorize Tokyo.

Want something horrifying that won't leave you feeling cheated?  Check out my Amazon Author's page.

See you next week!