I kicked off the first day of winter vacation yesterday with another first for my time here in Japan, the first time I’ve gone to the movies. The reason I haven’t gone is not so much for lack of interest, nor because they dub all the English movies into Japanese like they do in Germany, but simply because movie theaters in Japan are much fewer and farther between than elsewhere.
The closest theater to me is in the town of Soga about 30 km away, a half-hour by train with one connection in between. The theater itself is several km from Soga Station, though there is a free shuttle bus leaving every ten minutes from the station that stops in the general vicinity.
The theater’s website is only in Japanese but I found the movie schedule easily enough. The movie I wanted to see—The Hobbit—had three different schedules, one for 2-D and two for 3-D, though I couldn’t distinguish the difference between the two for 3-D. I figured the best time to go would be 3:05 p.m., giving me plenty of time to get some errands and chores done and then have lunch before taking the train in to see it. I wanted to have a big lunch so I wouldn’t be starving during the movie, so I planned on curry rice and chicken which takes two hours to prepare. You’ve got to rinse the rice and let it soak for an hour, then the rice-cooker itself takes about another hour to finish.
But half-way through my cooking of the rice, at 1:30, I realized I miscalculated and should have started an hour earlier. The movie started at 3:00 and it would take about an hour to get there from Togane Station. I kicked myself for having been so unconscious of the time issue, and quickly debated whether to forget about lunch and just go or wait until the 6:25 show. But the 6:25 wouldn’t end until 9:25 and the last train from Soga left just after 10:00 so that would be cutting it a little close. On top of that I have no idea when the last shuttle bus runs so I decided to just get my stuff together and go. I’d have a few soy protein bars to sustain me and I could probably get some quick food at the theater. As for the rice I had cooking—well—I’d let the cooker finish and see if it could be reheated when I got back.
I got to Soga station at 2:31 and saw the shuttle bus pull away the second I got out the exit. There was another one in ten minutes, but I was still feeling pretty stressed about possibly missing the movie. I’ve never gone to the movies in Japan before and I have no idea how it works. Do they even let people in late? Probably, but would I only miss some coming attractions or does the actual movie start at the exact time they say it starts? I had no idea.
I got off the shuttle bus at the “Festival Walk” stop with just 10 minutes to spare. I asked one of the bus-riders in Japanese if he knew where the “eigakan” was and he pointed me in the right direction. It was through a large complex of all kinds of uniquely Japanese recreational establishments but I had no time to stop and check them out. The theater was all the way at the end, and I made it there at 3:00. Success!
Or so I thought. I asked the cashier girl for one ticket to The Hobbit and she told me the starting time. It took a second for my brain to process the time in Japanese, but I knew there was something wrong. She was saying 6:25. I told her I wanted the 3:05. She informed me that the 6:25 was the one with English audio. The 3:05 was the one dubbed in Japanese.
I almost laughed out loud at myself. If I had just decided to wait for the 6:25 in the first place it would have been perfect, but instead I’d rushed out the door and stressfully raced to the theater for nothing. But I obviously couldn’t just go back to Togane and come back—that process would take the whole three hours anyway and cost me extra train money. And I wasn’t going to do this another day either. I’d come all this way and I was going to see the movie, damn it, even if I had to wait another three hours. So I bought the ticket for 6:25 and walked away, trying to figure out how I was going to kill three hours in Soga, a town notorious for having nothing worth seeing.
But the answer was right in front of my face, with all the posters for Les Miserables hanging around the theater. I went back to the cashier girl and asked her when the next showing of Les Miserables would be. Turned out it started at 3:15 and ended 6:00. “Sugoi!” I exclaimed, glad that at least something worked out perfectly.
So it was to be a double-feature. Movie day in Japan, in which I’d see the two movies and the only two movies currently playing that I have any desire to see.
I was starving so I went to the concession stand and bought a piece of fried chicken breast and a soda, discovering in the process that movie theaters in Japan charge just as ridiculous prices for food as in America. They gave me this whole blue tray designed to hold all kinds of food and up to three beverages, but with just one piece of chicken and one soda I felt a little silly carry it into the theater.
In Japan they give you assigned seats, so I found mine and sat down, somewhat surprised to see that so many people had turned out for Les Mis. The theater wasn’t packed by any means, but there were at least three dozen or more there to see a movie in a language they don’t understand (subtitles can only convey so much) about a culture they’re not familiar with. But maybe Les Mis is well-known in Japan too and many people like the music. I don’t know, but I had to wonder about what was going through the audience’s mind during all the parts about God and sin and redemption.
My review of the film: absolutely fantastic. I of course love the show, and the time I saw it in London sticks out as one of—if not the best—theater experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a lot different in movie form though because you don’t have that magic of live performance where the actors are up there belting out those songs and feeling the emotions behind them right there in communion with the live audience, but most of the performances in the film made up for that. In those cases it was actually more impressive, as there’s such a huge difference between stage acting and film acting and to be able to convey the same emotions on screen without an audience before you, to have to go take after take after take in character, maintaining the same intensity of emotion the scene calls for while surrounded by cameras and directors and producers and that—it’s extremely impressive when they pulled it off. I couldn’t get over how unbelievably amazing Anne Hathaway was as Fantine—I’ve never seen a more Oscar-worthy performance in my life. Hugh Jackman was also great as Valjean and almost all of the other actors were impressive as well. The only exception was Javert played by Russell Crowe, whose singing voice is decent at best but who didn’t do much of anything with it anyway and failed to achieve the kind of pathos that every other major character did.
The film itself ended at 5:50 which still left plenty of time before The Hobbit, so I resolved to stay in the theater until the lights came up and just enjoy the end credits music. In the process I discovered another small difference between the movie-theater experience in Japan and America, as nearly every other person in the theater stayed behind as well. The lights weren’t even slightly raised during the credits, but remained completely off until the final logo at the end of the film appeared. At that point they turned on and everyone got up to leave at the same time. It’s possible they too just wanted to stay to enjoy the music—they certainly weren’t getting anything out of reading the credits—but the fact that they all dutifully waited for the lights to go up at the very end suggested otherwise.
I used the time before the next movie to use the bathroom and head back to the ticket stand to check with the guy there when the movie would end and what time the last shuttle bus was. He attempted to speak English to me, and told me the movie would end at 8 something and the last shuttle bus left at 10 something, so I felt I could rest assured I’d have no trouble getting home.
I made my way to the theater showing The Hobbit, took my 3-D glasses from the bin and made my way to my assigned seat. I was the only person in the theater when I got there at 6:10, and only about ten others came in before the movie started. It was no surprise that most Japanese would prefer to see the Japanese-dubbed version of the film, but I was surprised that even ten people would come for the subtitle version, especially now that the movie’s been out for a week.
My review of the film: it was acceptable. At this point I’ve seen Peter Jackson’s films of Lord of the Rings many times over and I know what to expect, so there weren’t any disappointments and any problems I had with the way he did certain scenes were problems I knew to expect anyway. He dragged some things out too much and brushed over others, and added some elements that were not at all a part of the book but which were nevertheless not really egregious alterations of the Middle Earth history. Some of his additions were also pleasant surprises, as he brought back a few characters from Lord of Rings who weren’t in The Hobbit and they had some scenes with them that while not written by Tolkien were both consistent with his history and enjoyable to watch. I thought the actors were all well-chosen—the dwarves in particular—and I was very happy with the actor who played Bilbo (in stark contrast with Elijah Wood as Frodo). The scene I cared most about was the one where Bilbo finds the ring in Gollum’s cave and they have their scene of riddles, and I was pleased to see them stick so faithfully to the dialog in the book. As for all the other elements—the scenery, the cinematography, the score, etc.—those are all top-knotch and the reason I still enjoy the Lord of the Rings films after all this time in spite of my many problems with them. Whatever flaws there may be in Peter Jackson’s storytelling, the look and feel of the films does draw you into Middle Earth and take you on an adventure.
I hadn’t known for certain whether the film would cover the entirety of The Hobbit or just the first half, but half-way through the film I realized things were moving far too slowly to get through everything, and indeed it did end at the half-way point, just after the escape from the Misty Mountains and the arrival at the edge of Murkwood Forest. So I guess that means another trip to Soga next year.
The film ended at 9:15 and I didn’t waste any time staying for the credits. I was the only one who got up to leave right away which is further evidence that staying until the very end is part of Japanese movie-going culture, but the 10:06 train I had to catch was the last train home and I couldn’t afford to take any chances.
I reached the shuttle-bus stop at 9:22 and looked at the schedule. It looked like the last bus came at 9:08. Some help that ticket-cashier had been. He should have just stuck to Japanese instead of trying to English me and getting both the movie ending-time and shuttle-bus time wrong.
So I’d just have to walk it. And in times like these it’s no small blessing to have an iPhone with GPS tracking handy. I was not only able to easily navigate my way back to the station but I could tell I was making good time along the way and didn’t have to stress. I made it back to the station with plenty of time to spare and stopped at a konbini to buy a quick “dinner” of two more pieces of greasy fried chicken. I figured the rice I’d started cooking nine hours earlier was a lost cause.
On the train platform the announcer came on every few minutes to say something about a delay but I couldn’t tell if he meant the train I needed or the one before it. I figured it was the one before it because it was past the time it should have come. Luckily an old Japanese guy came up to me to attempt communication and I was able to ask him. Apparently there are quite a few people like this—old Japanese men who like to approach foreigners and practice their English. Other ALTs have told me how it annoys them, but I don’t mind. It’s usually some kind of learning experience.
This guy was taking the same train as me so we had a long time for him to keep searching his brain for things to say and ask me in English. It was all very random, asking me about things like the difference between miles and kilometers, the assassination of JFK, whether I’d heard of Nat King Cole, and so on. He handed me a business card and I was proud of myself that I was able to read his name in kanji: 池田“Ikeda” a combination of ‘pond’ and ‘rice field’. He informed me that the Japanese prime minister when JFK was president was also named Ikeda.
He left the train at Honda, two stops before my changeover in Oami, I complimented his English and he left with a smile, very proud of himself. I guess I can see why other foreigners might find people like him annoying but I was happy to make his day. And considering just how much of a struggle it is for me to communicate with students and other teachers, his English really was quite impressive.
Our train had also been delayed by a couple of minutes so I walked very quickly to make the connection on Oami, which was reduced from 3 minutes to 1 minute, but it didn’t matter anyway because they were waiting for another train which had been delayed. I guess because it’s the last train they wait so everyone can make the connection, which I have no problem with at all.
But it also meant I didn’t get home until 10:45, a full hour and a half after leaving the theater. Considering that it’s 3 hours of travel time to and from the theater and most movies are about 2 hours, it’s just not worth going unless it’s something I really really want to see. And now I was actually glad to have made my timing error earlier, as the only film besides The Hobbit I wanted to see was Les Miserables and now I don’t have to go all the way back there.
The last discovery I made of these day is that Japanese rice cookers don’t shut down when they’re finished cooking, but keep the rice warm until you remove it. It came as quite a surprise to me when I opened it up in preparation to scrape it all into the trash and discovered that it was not just warm but actually nice and sticky and delicious. So it turned out that the rice hadn’t gone to waste after all. The only thing wasted was hours and hours of electricity, though I can’t imagine it took too much juice to maintain the mild warmth.
And that was my adventure yesterday, a nice way to kick off my winter vacation. The rest of it probably won’t be as interesting, but I’m sure it’ll be enjoyable.