Thursday, September 18, 2008

Pemagrin at Ghibli Museum and Gaming in Japan

So I thankfully had the foresight to buy tickets to the Ghibli Museum before my trip while I was still in LA. I had to drive to Mitsuwa in Torrence, and the first time, I didn't know I needed my passport to buy the ticket, so I had to make the trip twice. If you are contemplating coming to Tokyo and are any kind of interested in feeling like a kid again, I highly suggest getting tickets to the museum beforehand. I have it on good authority that the museum still regularly sells out. Some locals I met with later in the evening were shocked and awed that I had been able to get in to the museum as they had all still never been. Besides guaranteeing you entrance, the voucher frm the US also allows you to go whenever you want. Normal tickets bought in Japan are for a 1 hour time slot, and if you miss that window, you're S.O.L.

When I entered the museum grounds, I was struck by the craftsmanship of not only the architecture, but of the greenery as well. Tall grass loped over the edge of the roof of one of the buildings as other vegetation partly obscured the view of a giant robot from Laputa. The interior of the Totoro Entrance is a very homey all wooden staircase and handrails leading to the front desk. The receptionist took my voucher (and, by the way, did not require to see my passport for verification. Hrumpf, Torrance Mitsuwa, I've got my eye on you!) and handed me an English map and a movie ticket. Now this was no ordinary movie ticket. No, it was a thick cardboard frame (600 GSM is my guess for those in the know) holding 3 frames of animation. Again, it's those little touches that made the whole experience more awesome.

The first room I saw was a zoetrope room. A zoetrope is an old animation device. Basically, artwork is drown on a thin long strip of paper. The artwork has to create a loop, that is it has no definite beginning nor end - a character walking is a perfect example. The artwork is then placed in the zoetrope with the artwork facing the inside of the wheel. For mental reference, think of a cylinder with thin vertical slits equally spaced out and you've got yourself a zoetrope. Once the artwork is loaded into the zoetrope, you spin it around it's center point and look through the slits at the artwork. A combination of the motion and your brain's persistence of vision makes the artwork appear to be animated. In short you brain sees the artwork then a blank frame of the wheel, then the artwork and so on. Your brain translates the blank frame followed by new artwork as a step in the animation cycle and fills in the missing information, thus giving you a fully animated sequence.

First in view was a Laputa Robot surounded by birds taking flight. What was awesome about this was the robot was a 3D sculpture that was slowly turning clockwise as the birds were a clear ring of acetate rotating counter clockwise. Instead of encasing the whole aparatus in a zoetrope, the blank frames were created by quickly flashing a strobe light as the acetate cylinder of birds flying artwork spun around.

This was nothing compared to what I saw next. There was a massive Totoro 3D Zoetrope a little further into the room. The scene takes place around a giant oak tree. At the foot of the tree, white rabbits weave and dance around two girls jumping rope. A little further back is Totoro himself jumping up and down. Behind Totoro very close to the trunk of te tree is another girl riding a unicycle. Flying around the tree clockwise is the Catbus (sans balls - if you didn't catch it or have never seen Totoro, the Catbus jumps over the camera at some point and is anatomically correct!) and above him flying counter clockwise is a bat. Now remember all of these are 3D sculptures. I wasn't able to count, but let's say there are at least 20 frames in the animation. That means there are 20 slightly different sculpts of each character to give the whole thing life once it spins up and the strobe light hits it.

It is at this point I should mention you cannot take pictures inside the museum. BOO. I am adding a youtube video that someone else shot so you can see this for yourself.

I saw a video of it prior to seeing it with my own eyes and I will say it doesn't spoil or diminish anything. seeing it in person is too amazing to be ruined by anything like a blurry youtube vid. It really must be seen in person to fully grasp the beauty.

After the zoetrope room, I headed up a super narrow spiral staircase to the third floor. I was instantly greeted by a 1/2 sized catbus. Unfortunately, you could be taller than this to ride this ride. Clearly made for kids and thankfully the kids I saw were enjoying themselves immensely.

I headed outside to a little patio. There were fish skeleton benches with little hand cranks where the eyes should be. There was also a laputa inspired water fountain and a green metal spiral staircase leading to the roof. Heading up the staircase lead me to come face-to-knee with the aforementioned laputa robot. After exploring the roof and taking plenty of pictures while I could, I headed downstairs to see how long the line to the café was. When I asked the hostess how long it would be she only answered "hours."

I had nothing else to do that day and figured I may never come back to the museum, so why not wait in line? Like everything else about this museum, it was totally worth it. Waiting in line, I was passed a menu to peruse in hopes of expediting my dining experience inside. However, the menu was only in japanese, so I took some pictures of it an passedit along. The wait was close to 2 hours. Once I got seated at the bar, I was given a photocopy of the menu with hand written english in the margins. I ordered a Looking at sky through the clouds as a drink and the pancake sandwich as my lunch. I had no idea what either of these were, and figured again, I may never do this again. The drink was gorgeous. A sky blue elixir of soda water with a single scoop of vanilla ice cream floating on top, and garnished with a straw made from an actual reed - as in a plant! When I stirred the drink, the ice cream melted/foamed and actually looked like clouds in the sky. On top of looking wonderful, it tasted even better. My sandwich was a deep fried vegetable medley patty topped with sauteed enoki mushrooms and a light cream sauce all lodged between 2 whole wheat pancakes. It too was delicious. I really wanted to order a slice of strawberry cake, but I as too full to even think of getting one.

After finishing lunch, I continued exploring the second floor. Located on this floor was what I imagine is an exact replication of Studio Ghibli's animation studio. As well as what I'm guessing i s Hayao Miyazaki's study. Books and drawings and little models were strewn about and it really felt as though I was snooping though someone's private belongings.

Also on this floor was this month's special exhibit Le Petit Lourve. Yep, a mini Lourve. Impressive as all get out, but I couldn't see the point honestly. It's not as though someone repainted all those great masterpieces to scale. They were digital copies.

Now having finished the museum, all I had left was to see whatever the übercool movie ticket got me into. I headed downstairs to the ground floor and presented my ticket to the usher. She confirmed that sitting on the stairs was ok with me and stamped my ticket. Inside was a delightful little theatre with beautifully carved decorations culminating in a moon and a sun smiling at one another in the center of the ceiling. The lights dimmed and the projector fired up. I was astonished to see an orignal Ghibli short named The day I bought a Planet. It wasn't subtitled in english, but I got the gist of it. A young farmer boy on the way to sell his enormous onions at the market has his bike breakdown. An anthropomorphic Frog and Mole are sitting on the side of the road when he breaks down. The frog offers a seed in exchange for a couple slices of giant onion the boy picks a bright blue crystal from a case. When he returns home from the market, he plants it and waters it. The next day, above the pot he planted the seed in is a floating dirt ball being orbited by 2 moon-like crystals. The boy takes a spoonful of water and brings it close to the dirtball. The dirt ball's own gravitational field pulls the water off the spoon and soaks it into the dirt ball. Next the boy gets a spray bottle and mists the planet. Again, the gravitational field contains the mist and creates an atmosphere. The return to sleep and when he awakens the next day, the planet is teeming with life. At this point the film it takes a turn for the exposition and loses me. The farmer boy has moved to a Los Angeles circa 2019 a la Blade Runner and the anthropomorphic Frog and Mole land on his roof in a flying trolley car. Talking ensues and they take off to get his planet. So maybe I don't get the whole gist of it, bt I do know it was cool looking and I doubt i'd have a chance to see it otherwise. Having checked everything off the list of things to do at the museum, I headed home.

It's at this point I feel obligated to report that the night before i was chatting with my friend Nate Beeler. He was just in japan in february and said if I didn't have any plans tonight, that I could head over to Yellow Submarine, a local board game store in Akihabara. Tanaka-san has a weekly game night there and an active member on boardgamegeek, Joe was friendly enough to bring Nate to the game night when he was here. Nate gives me Joe's address and directions to the store.

After a quick dip in the jacuzzi at the hotel after the museum, I head out to Akihabara. I've got Nate's directions and Joe's cellphone number and a map, so I feel pretty confident I can find the shop.

I exit following the directions. It' supposed to only be a couple blocks from the train station assuming you come out the right exit. I either don't come out the right exit or depending on what train line you come in on, the same named exit is in a slightly different place. After walking for about 10 minutes, I declare that I am lost. I already know the map is useless to me, so I resort to calling Joe. Joe's happy enough to come get me where I am and escort me to the store.

Yellow Submarine #2 is located on the 7th floor of a building that looks more like an apartment complex than retail environment. Nevertheless, when Joe leads me inside, I am shocked at the size of the store. Space is a premium in Tokyo, which is why so many buildings opt for vertical expansion rather than horizontal. The store is a long skinny bowling alley of a room. 2/3 of it is store x selling anything from monopoly to keltis. There's a strong
German game section as well as an area for wargames ad rpgs s well as simple card games and ccgs. The other 1/3 are tables available for open gaming. There are about 12 cafeteria style tables and chairs in this part of the room and more than half of them are occupied by players. I instantly see people playing games like gemblo, burn rate and some traditional japanese game. Joe informs me the game is called Tehonbiki and is an old school yakuza/gambling game.

The rules seemed simple enough. The dealer has 6 blocks of wood with numbers 1 - 6 painted on them. All players have a hand of 6 cards also numbered 1 - 6. The dealer secretly picks his card. All other players ante up and make their pick, trying to guess what number the dealer has picked. If you're right, you get the pot, if you're all wrong. The house collects. There is no restriction as to what number the dealer can pick. Play 15 rounds and change dealer, at least in a friendly we all still have all of our pinkys kind of game.

Once that game finishes, Tanaka-san asks if I play german style games. I now tell the i'm a game designer for Mattel. They ask what games I've designed and I tell them mostly licensed stuff - Batman, Sponge Bob, Yu-Gi-Oh, etc. They nod

We sit down and play Kunstmarkt, or Art Market. It's a farly simple game where players are art dealers trying to amass the most money by game end. there are pieces of art for sale and each piece of art has some different attributes, like country of origin, type of painting, genre, size, date and fame ranking. There are also Customer cards. these represent people the players are selling their art to. The Customers have specific wants. Generally there are 2 criteria that have to be met. For example, Customer A wants Landscapes and of all available Landscapes, he wants the oldest one. Also listed on the bottom of the Customer Cards is how much they are willing to pay for said artwork.

So on your turn, you can do 1 of 3 things.

1) buy a piece of artwork. pay the money to the bank

2) draw a customer card

3) play a customer card from your hand.

Playing a customer card is basically asking each player in turn clockwise from the active player to show one of their pieces of art work that matches the criteria of the Customer. Whomever meets the requirements the best gets paid.

Game end when any of the following occur:

1) All the artwork has been bought

2) All the customer cards have been drawn

3) A Player Amasses some amount of money that no one was close to and I forget the amount anyways.

We played a full game, ending right before the shop had to close for the evening. Tanaka-san won via a tie breaker. A very nice game.

After Gaming, a group of about 10 of us went to get Sushi at a local department store. I know, sounds weird, but it was perfectly fine. Before dinner, Joe had us stop at the toys and game floor of the department store. He knew I was looking for a Hanafuda deck and thought they might have it here. They did, I bought a deck manufactured by Nintendo. Little Known Fact - Nintendo started out as a traditional playing card company. They still make Standard Poker decks and Hanafuda decks as well.

At dinner, we talked about anime, Zombie Movies and board games. Tanaka-san asked if I ever designed German-style games and I said I made 2. Voltage and Desert Bazaar. It was hard to believe, but their eyes lit up when they heard the names. They actually had heard of the games, so that was kinda cool. After we finished eating, I opened another game I got at the department store, Simpei. I was told it's a traditional Japanese abstract game. It's basically Advanced Tic Tac Toe. It's unfortunately kind of difficult to explain in just words and I'm too tired to try it now. maybe later i'll write it up so i don't forget how to play myself!

So a productive 2nd day in Tokyo. Playing games, even if it was just A single game was kind of perfect. It was fun seeing how we could communicate through the language of gaming faster than trying to translate and interpret each others' words. It has made this trip feel even more like something I needed to do for myself. What can I say, I love gaming with good people...

Joe invited me to play more games at his place on Friday, so I might do that as I've spent more money than I thought I would and fear that exploring will lead to more spending! That and gaming is fun!

1 comment:

Nathan said...

So happy you got in the good gaming and got to meet those guys. Really great group!

And I'm making my jealous face for missing out on the Ghilbi fun.