Japan 2010: 20 - Where I Become a Slave to Consumerism

Since my first job today would be to get the necessary folding to see me through an exhaustive shopping trip (I really didn't know what I'd be buying but it would sure as hell be expensive), I let my tired body rest in my little room which would form the base of operations until I left to catch my plane. For the most part, I had left the souvenir-buying until this point, although weakness and a need to take home something from each place I'd been to meant that there was already much for me to lug home already. Today however was totally for me. I haven't many friends who care much for anime-related merchandise so this would be pretty much all mine. Today I had two goals; visit the Ghibli Museum (for the second time) and since it was on at the time, try and see at least a couple of films at the Tokyo International Film Festival. In other words, several of my passions would all come together in a single day.

The post office opened at 9am sharp and I was there at the door as soon as it did. The sun was shining and the skies had exhausted their supplies of rain, at least for the moment. Out came another 20,000 yen, but when I handed over my final travellers cheque to get another ten thousand to play with, they wouldn't take it. I asked where was the nearest place and they pointed me at the Mizuho bank branch around the corner.

There is an undercurrent of disquiet in the UK about our banks and how they have managed to change from safe, family-run establishments operated by a man in a bowler hat who you had to be very nice to in order for him to lend you some money, to the massively over-powerful corporations they are today, and how that has done its bit to land us where we are now. Well, as I entered this bank, it felt a little like I had gone backwards in time.

They had the usual people behind glass screens on the ground floor, but my business was upstairs. A stout man of advancing years greeted me at the top and asked me to sit in the waiting area, and offered me a drink. He asked in broken English what I was after, and I showed them my cheque. Looking over, a pair of desks with chairs on either side with a divider between was all that stood between myself and a whole array of workers, sat at their desks surrounded by stacks and reams of paper, calling to one another and holding up forms to fill, barely a computer between them. At the desks, one mature-looking man who looked quite senior was sternly reviewing a written application form of commendable thickness, filled in by a much younger applicant, now perched nervously on the other side, sitting on his hands and trying to avoid eye contact.

I'm not saying these guys necessarily had it right, but the careful, respectful and above all nerve-wracking atmosphere bestowed on it's custom felt like when things hit the fan again like they did, this little bank wouldn't be one of those that needed a bail-out.

The other desk was free but with no assistant manning it, I waited. After a couple of minutes, a young bespectacled man found a little time between typing and form filling to serve me. I handed over the cheque and filled in a form or two, and then was asked to go back to my seat for a while as my cheque disappeared into the paper forest. About five minutes later, he returned with a crisp note and a thank you slip. I bowed to everyone and left.

Stocked up on hard cash, I headed off in the direction of Mitaka. The YeastEAST mini-bakery in Otsuka station was the closest eatery that looked open and they did take-out so took a quick detour in there. (Recommended: their absolutely gorgeous bacon-bread sticks. Very yum), and then went south back to Shinjuku.

The trip to Mitaka was back towards Mt. Fuji again although not as far, and this time I would be taking the museum bus that I had clocked eyes on just as I was leaving last time. Down the stairs out of the station, there is a bus stop dedicated to the route of the bus. A bus conductor in a museum hat was stood at the bus as I ran towards it and stopped my entry onto the bus, and pointed to the large metal unit just to the side. It even had it's own ticket machine.

The driver waited patiently an extra minute while I fumbled enough cash for a return ticket (300yen return, 200yen 1 way), and then got on. It was standing room only. I ended up stood next to Rob and James - a couple of guys from Essex. Mid-late twenties, they'd been friends since young and were living the dream of visiting the country. They had the figures you might associate with lots of cult-TV viewing, and had a lot of facial hair, through which were a couple of slightly haggard looks, maybe from the jetlag, or perhaps a bit too much sake the night before. James was in crutches, clearly a sizeable accident wasn't going to keep him away from his trip. We chatted as the bus bounced towards the museum, this being their first time and had to come see it while doing a week around Tokyo.

The stop came and most people filed off. The three of us jointly approached the Totoro ticket booth together, the two guys forgetting their age briefly and going all squealy and childlike, whereas my reaction was one of returning to an old friend. A couple of pictures at the booth later and they raced ahead, the crutches not stopping James from leaving me for dust.
I strolled down the entrance pathway, surveying the Miyazaki-styled structure. It was pretty much as before, only with a lot more creeping ivy up the walls, and as with many other places, the gardens were now in need of a bit of tidying.

It was half past ten so the foot traffic was relatively light but things started to busy up pretty soon afterwards. Even out of season, the museum gets plenty of attention from all over the world.

Indoors, things were similarly recognisable, and as before, I was discouraged from taking pictures so you'll just have to read for a bit. I exchanged my voucher for my proper ticket at the reception (Totoro and Mei this time) and strolled at a relaxed pace down the stairs into the main area.

The layout hadn't changed, but there were a few subtle differences; the giant dolls house with the film scenes behind the windows had swapped around a bit and included entries for Ponyo, Earthsea and Arrietty, and there was a lovely circular 'evolution' animation being shown through the exploded film camera in the corner; a lowly bacterial creature morphs and grows and escapes the predators evolving around him before attaining a human-like form where he meets his true love.

I figured that the Saturn Theatre should be next before the queues got too big. One batch had just gone in and I checked the boards - MonMon the Water Spider was playing. It didn't grab my attention so much when I'd first heard of this one, but an exclusive Ghibli short film isn't something you can get picky about. Rob and James were in the queue and I ended up behind them. We compared film strips, and they were suitably jealous of my Totoro one; Robs was a scene from Howl where Sophie sees the burning city, whereas between us we couldn't place James's strip at all - it was a vague countryside scene - we guessed either Mononoke or Totoro. We stood and chatted, each of us with a subdued excitement bubbling under our domestic conversation, and finally we all filed in.

Mon Mon is a little water spider living in a quiet lake, who one day sees a water boatman (woman) and falls deeply in love, but he is of the water and she the air, and it doesn't help that she tries to eat him when he goes to say hello. The best part of the film is the music, which is played as a pair of solo pieces that come together at the end as they meet on equal but opposite terms. Not even a nearby child not knowing how to keep quiet could spoil the film, and I was completely charmed by it, along with all the other children in the room.

Up on the second floor, things had stayed much the same in the artists' study, save for a few new sketches on the walls, although I noticed that the new stuff seemed to be at the expense of most of the Takahata material. The 'guest room' which last time was the 'three bears' exhibit looked as if it was between exhibitions, and contained just a handful of stands displaying preview reels of some future shorts.

Upstairs, the Catbus exhibit was still off-bounds to the adults (boo), and was again crawling with kids, watched over by patient and slightly jealous-looking parents. Along with the kids this time was a whole nest of soot-sprite toys which were being flung merrily about, which I didn't recall being there last time.
The adjacent book store and Mama Aiuto rooms were respectively dead quiet and intensely packed as usual, so I looked a bit through both of them to see what they had, and then left for the balcony exit for some much needed air.
The Laputa robot was still attracting pushy parents and small children to it's feet for photo opportunities, so I went behind for a while to the peace and quiet of the grass borders. A nice airy breeze tempered the heat of the sun nicely and the rustle of the scrub calmed me down again while I contemplated my shopping list. An Arrietty art book was a definite, and perhaps a MonMon picture book as well (Ghibli do a mini art book for each of their short films and I'd already got a couple from the set at home).

I headed back into the chaos of Mama Aiuto first. Suddenly I had the purchasing shrewdness of a twelve year-old on a sugary high. There was an English language museum booklet going for 1000yen (with a free poster) so I had that; they had several soundtracks (including the lovely MonMon one and the Arrietty album, plus a Ghibli songs one for luck - about 7000yen total), a round tin of cookies for 1600yen, plus by some miracle I also considered my friends as well in all the buying; I got a couple of squidgy fluffy Totoros (2000yen each), as presents for their newly arrived children.

13000yen down straight away. I sat panting on one of the knowingly placed benches just outside the shop, glad to be out of the madness and thankful I had resisted the urge to try for some hugely-expensive clothing or one of their giant Porco Rosso airfix plane models. I could quite easily have walked away with most of that shop had I not been constantly pushed around the store by fellow eager buyers.

Thankful I'd left the relatively sedate bookshop until last, I quietly strolled around with my sizeable baggage without fear of knocking too many people over. I picked up an Arrietty art book (2900yen - which I'm sure was more expensive than when I'd seen it in that Yurakucho cinema, but I couldn't be arsed going back for a few hundred savings). I also got the Monmon book (1000yen), but passed on the Ponyo art book, although it was very tempting. They had some books from Aardman and Pixar for sale there as well, but they were all in Japanese so I gave them a miss.

I walked back past Mama Aiuto's with blinkers on my eyes, resisting any temptation to return and buy more things. Instead I went outside and tried without luck to get a seat at the Straw Hat cafe, which again was impossible, although Rob and James were there tucking into some strawberry cheesecake. I settled for a banana ice cream at the take-away and sat at a remote seat munching in the shade.

It was pretty busy now and midday was long gone, so I took a final tour around the more interesting rooms and then left.

The bus had just left, but another followed quickly behind. At Mitaka station it was 2.30, so I retraced my steps to the hotel, dropped everything safely off, and then got back on the loop line - this time for Hamamatsucho.

Hamamatsucho station is in Minato, on the opposite side of the Yamanote loop to Otsuka and my next stopoff on the way to Roppongi, a fashionable district of Tokyo. Minato, is close by and is the home of the Tokyo Tower, which sits directly between the station and Roppongi Hills, where the Tokyo Film Festival was entering it's final phases and where I would be headed for the evening. It had been recommended that I should get on the subway from Ebisu, as that was more direct but I figured it would be nicer to get off from the south-east end of the Yamanote line and take a walk through the area to see what it was all about. This was perhaps foolhardy if I was going to catch any films because things were getting late, but it was my only chance while here.
As busy and bustling as any Tokyo district, I emerged onto a busy main street and oriented myself according to my printed out map with additional scribblings. The roads were wide and the buildings were chunky and covered in neon signs, and everything felt ready to move into the nightlife phase of which the area is know, now not so many hours away.
The first part of my journey was simple - just head in the direction of the Tokyo Tower - poking cheekily out above the tops of the buildings - and I would be on the right track.

The modern buildings continued on for some time, although these were mitigated slightly by a section of road on the way to the Buddhist Zozo-ji temple, straddled by several Torii gates, some of which had their own traffic lights.
Zozo-ji is a large temple in Shiba Park, situated just next to the tower. You enter through a huge gaudy red Daimon gate whose ornamental roofs stick out over the busy road in front. As the night was drawing in, the tower lit up a similarly seductive rouge colour behind the main shrine building, as a few final worshippers paid their respects for the evening. I scurried across the main concourse and out of the side exit, and carried on up the road.

The tower was still open for lifts to the top, but I was clock-watching once more. It was half past five and the next film that I wanted to catch was at six. I figured that I could return and get some nice views from the top once things got properly dark. The imposing red structure did look beautiful in the evening light. In the entrance area below, they were erecting a large Christmas tree in preparation for the festivities over the next few weeks.

Past the tower, I was reliant completely on the map. I passed a rather long castle structure, where every entrance had a manned guard house outside; it appeared to be one of the many embassy buildings in the area. I tried not to make eye contact as I went past, and probably over compensated my look of innocence at walking somewhere really quickly.
Beyond that, things took on a style similar to Shinjuku or Akihabara, although the atmosphere felt a little different, a little more exhausted businessman-like. Large multifloor shopping complexes (including another Don Quijote with a bloody rollercoaster on the roof!) and many a restaurant, nightclub or some more adult emporium did their bit to add to the neon decoration. For many of the latter, they had employed western men (strangely, mostly black guys) to drum up business by coming over to you and acting chummy in the hope you would follow them in and insert some notes between nubile ladyskin and lacy underwear. If you've never been through such a Japanese district before and suddenly you're being called 'my man' by the fourth or fifth black guy in a row, a certain uneasy feeling creeps over you. I kept my pace up and moved through quickly.

Though I had lost my place on the map, I knew I was close as there were TIFF posters attached to all the lampposts in the area, although none actually included any arrows to point me in the right direction. I took a guess and headed down a side road which by good fortune ended up at the base of the Roppongi Hills complex, and was greeted at the intersection by a building that insisted on counting down numbers on massive LCD-style readouts. Up the hill beyond was the commercial area, and the place had definitely stepped up a gear on the posh front. I felt out of place in my t-shirt and jeans.
Eventually I found the entrance, although rather than finding myself in a cinema, it was a complicated multilevel shopping arcade with concrete parks and covered areas, little curious pathways everywhere and precious little signage. Not what you want when searching desperately for a festival.
To my intense relief I eventually spotted a load of TIFF posters and got on the right track, heading up a few floors and emerging into an open area where a booth and a red carpet (and a huge sign) told me I had finally arrived. I approached the booth expecting a ticket exchange (or being told I didn't look tidy enough to enter) but was instead guided helpfully through a set of nearby double doors into the cinema reception.

The queues were mercifully short. I took a final scan of the films still left I could see. Roman Polanski's Ghost Writer looked pretty cool but it had sold out (still not seen it), but The Elephant and Countdown to Zero still had tickets going, so I got them. I would only be seeing two films at this festival (plus a short), but I could now say that I had at least been.

--- Mini Festival Time! ---

(Jpn) (full, unsubbed movie)

A short-ish animation before The Elephant, TAMILA is an environmentally-themed film about a punk cat living in cat city, where it hasn't stopped raining. Saving a bumblebee from drowning, she goes to sleep that night and dreams of walking through time, seeing cat (read:human) technology develop, along with the inevitable war and pollution that comes with it. When she wakes, the earth is a wasteland, and is left with the bee to walk through the scorched remains a la Grave of the Fireflies (although nowhere near on par), with a similarly happy ending.

The flash-animated style and the childish feel of the film (which was surprisingly English subtitled) set me up for something far more cute and cuddly for what it eventually turned into, which got unusually morose and rather graphic in places, trying to drive home the message of 'wake up or die', to it's adult audience. This confused mix of the childish cutesyness and the adult themes put me off it a bit, but it felt as if I was not part of the intended audience. 6/10

The Elephant (Rus) (imdb)

A relatively overlooked film even on the festival circuit, I could find precious little about it online, save for the TIFF page. Bodhi is an elderly elephant in the employ of a travelling circus, who one day refuses to perform all her tricks in the middle of a show. Calling the vet, the outlook is bleak; the bills to fix her would be huge and they don't have the cash. Young and upcoming ringmaster Sergei takes the decision to have her taken away to the knackers yard, and in a fit of ruthless cunning, uses the opportunity to abandon Boni, his girlfriend there with the elephant, a girl who he sees as little more than an annoying distraction.

Sergei and family arranged for the help of Zarezin, an off-the-rails truck driver to transport Bodhi to the fate of the poison injection, and when Boni decides to come along for the ride, the three of them start an uneasy friendship, Zarezin's cold approach to getting the job done eventually melting when Boni finds out about the elephant's fate, turning the film into a sort of Smokey and the Bandit 2, but gentler, and with more heart. Perhaps the best part of the film comes at the end, where Bodhi is allowed to roam through the countryside, and the choice of the elephant's name becomes clear. Yes, it was a bit of a contrived road movie, and there was little in here that was 'original', but it was still very enjoyable, and by the end there was a lump in my throat. 7.5/10

Countdown to Zero (US) (wiki)

2010 was a good year for hard-hitting and ambitious documentaries. This one, by the producer of An Inconvenient Truth, concentrates on the proliferation of nuclear weapons across the globe and the threat of nuclear war that hangs over us, which struck a chord with me having been in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum a week or so before. As a special treat, the mayors of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki [with the help of an English translator for the international crowd], and Lucy Walker, the director of the film, gave live speeches before the film on the big screen,

Some spectacular but disquieting footage had been compiled of bomb blasts - both from controlled tests and from terrorist attacks, which were not nuclear, but put you in mind of the chaos that could come from a terrorist cell getting their hands on one - with the film helpfully providing a handful of ways that a terrorist could do just that with a remarkable ease. Tales of near misses - where accident or miscommunication meant that it was only the steady hand of the guy at the top that stopped an all-out war. A particularly alarming example was during the Yeltsin reign, where a miscommunication of an incoming nuclear missile happened by luck to catch the Russian leader between drunken hazes and he held back from thumping his fist down on the red button.

As an authoritative look into the problems the world faces by the presence of the bombs, this film provides a full and descriptive picture of where we are now, and it's not all obvious stuff either. Though a film basically about a perpetual sword of damocles above all our heads is pretty grim to think about, the latter part of it does take a more upbeat tone, concentrating on the work that has been done to bring the world back from the brink. It's yet another recommended eye-opener of a documentary that you should catch if you can. 8/10


I left the cinema sometime close to 10pm, having spent what felt like a criminally short time at the festival compared to my usual efforts. However, I had my tickets as proof I'd been, and thanks to an adjacent shop selling all sorts of film apparel, I walked away with a dual language TIFF 2010 catalogue as well to go in my collection.
Leaving the cinema was easy, but escaping from the labyrinth that was the Roppongi Hills complex was something else entirely. I had lost my bearings completely coming out in the dark, and my attempts to find an exit (curiously unsignposted) led me through half-closed shopping malls, giant spiders and underground car parks; none of which bore exit-shaped fruit. By the time I happened upon the real exit, I was getting a bit stressed. I wouldn't want to be trapped there in a fire or an earthquake, that's for sure.

Using the Tokyo Tower in the distance as a guide once more and fending off the attentions of five (five!) separate black guys asking me in to five separate nightclubs, I scurried on through until I ended up back at Don Quijote's, and since it was still open I took a quick look.

At the entrance they had a small tank with a big fish swimming around in it, and above was six floors of the same crammed in tat as was in the other branches, although this was the first time I had managed to find some Engrish during my trip - and I had been on the lookout.
I headed to the top in the hope of seeing this rooftop rollercoaster, but they had barriers up and it was apparently out of action. I left without buying.
Back at the Tokyo Tower, I took a closer look at their opening hours; and was surprised to find that the lifts to the top stopped at 8pm, so I wouldn't be experiencing that this time either. Boo. Everything was closing up, so I headed back to the station and off to the hotel.

Hotel Review: Otsuka Station Hotel (4800 yen/night, 3 nights)
I finished up in a place similar to where I started. The main draw for this hotel is that it is pretty cheap (for a downtown Tokyo hotel), and it is (very) close to a Yamanote line train station, which is what you need when you're trying to bulk up on souvenirs. If you are the sort of person who could sleep pretty much anywhere there is a functional bed, then this is a bargain option, but the room was poky and could have been cleaner,and the utilities were a little thin on the ground. However, the staff were very friendly and helpful and they do speak a little English, so on balance it was better than Ueno. Internet: free (1 machine at the reception) 7/10
A small restaurant called the Miami Garden looked quite nice, just outside Otsuka station when I got back, so I had a bit of a wash and freshen up, and then went in for a pepperoni pizza, ordering it just after 11pm - about 5 minutes before they stopped making food for the day. Though it was on my plate in what felt like seconds, it went down very nicely thank you very much.

I read about some of the films I had missed at the festival, but I didn't mind so much. Not many people can say they had been but I could. I packed my new things away in the case, somehow managing to cram it all in, and then concentrated on what was going to happen tomorrow - my last full day in Japan, and what I would get for the last few friends and family that wouldn't be happy with a squishy Totoro in their Christmas stocking.

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