Japanzine Takes On USJ
Restrained elegance, understated charm, quiet sophistication – three things you won’t find much of at Universal Studios Japan. If, on the other hand, you are looking for noisy, up-front, in-your-face entertainment, nobody does it better.
The park is divided into eight sectors surrounding a large lagoon, giving it a shape somewhat like a doughnut cut into slices. Each of these “slices” has a distinct look, based upon either an American city or a fictional movie location.
The first attraction guests come to in this section of USJ is the theater showing Sesame Street 4D Movie Magic in the mornings and Shrek’s 4D Adventure in the afternoon and evenings. As the name suggests, these movies go a step beyond 3D, using water, wind, light and whatever else comes to hand to recreate the sensation of flying with a dragon or dancing with a chorus line of smelly socks. Be careful what you say when you’re here – these movies fight back!
Next in Hollywood is ET Adventure, a “sit-on and ride-through” attraction aimed primarily at children, but reasonably diverting for adults too. The visitor is taken on a journey across the universe to ET’s home planet, there to see such breathtaking alien sights as various squiggly things and a talking mushroom. This interstellar journey is accomplished on a bicycle, leaving one to wonder why NASA wastes so much money on space ships.
Nearby is Woody Woodpecker’s “Animation Celebration”, arguably the most underrated of all the attractions in the park. Perhaps customers are deterred by the model of Woody over the entrance; few buildings have to be approached under the shadow of a fifteen-foot ‘pecker. Anyone mastering their fear will be rewarded by a stage show with a difference, a surprisingly watchable combination of animation and live action that manages to be both unexpected and highly effective.
The Terminator 2 3-D attraction is one of the few places in USJ where lack of Japanese language skills may leave you feeling slightly lost, although only during the pre-show presentation. This features Reika Ayanokoji, a fictitious employee of the Cyberdyne Corporation, manufacturer of the first terminators. In fact, Ayanokoji’s contribution largely consists of asking audience members where they are from and then saying, “That place sucks!” to howls of appreciative laughter. Luckily, there are no language problems with the show proper, a 3-D movie/live-action hybrid combining fun, fury and special effects in a way that is far beyond the need for translation. Expect explosions. Expect chases. Expect never to be able to turn your back on your toaster again.
Visitors craving yet more excitement can then make their way to the nearby Spiderman – The Ride, another sit-on and ride-through attraction, but at a much faster pace than the ET adventure, and with the added bonus of Terminator-like 3-D effects. If there is one place not to miss on a visit to USJ, this is it. Spiderman’s enemies have joined forces in a campaign of villainy and they don’t care who gets hurt in the process, including you. This ride lobs bombs at you one minute and sends you plummeting from a great height the next. By the end, you really will believe that a man can scale walls, leap across chasms, and hurl all over carpets.
If after all this you feel like a drink, Finnegan’s Irish Bar is the best place in town to find one. Unlike the rival mousedom in Tokyo, USJ does not impose a blanket ban on alcohol. In fact, between 15:00 and 17:00, Finnegan’s even has a happy hour! The quality of the traditional meals (Irish stew, fish and chips) is good and the food is supplemented at regular intervals throughout the day by live Irish music. You may not want to leave.
In the fractured geography of the good ol’ US of J, the Big Apple is bordered by the City by the Bay. The Back to the Future ride is the must-try attraction in this area. Visitors are locked into DeLoreanshaped flight simulators, and then take part in a thrilling car chase through time to when dinosaurs ruled the earth and Larry King was a cub reporter. The bumping, pitching and bucking are all just part of the fun, but this is probably not the ride to try just after eating. Unless, of course, you actually want your fellow passengers to view the entire contents of your stomach.
Backdraft, the other attraction in San Francisco, is the black sheep of the USJ family. The only truly terrifying moment in the entire show is director Ron Howard’s appearance in a V-neck sweater that undoubtedly contravenes several international good taste treaties. After that, it’s on to the main event, various pipes and oil drums catching fire in a factory. Since nobody is in the factory at the time, the show is a definite yawn for anyone who doesn’t feel a strong emotional bond with scraps of metal. Worse, it actively encourages youngsters to experiment with matches. After all, they need something to keep their eyelids open.
You are strongly recommended to take three simple precautions before joining the Jurassic Park ride: check the waiting time, buy a plastic raincoat, sign over your house and all your possessions to your next of kin. The ride involves a leisurely boat trip through dinosaur territory that, predictably enough, goes badly awry. There is nothing predictable about the big finish, though: a lightning journey from the age of dinosaurs to the present – 65 million years and all of them vertical! For anyone brave enough to try the ride out, here is a word of advice: When you get to the end, don’t look up! Or down! In fact, don’t look! And whatever you do, don’t close your eyes!
As everyone knows, wood floats. This is presumably the reason why Kevin Costner was asked to play the part of Mariner in the original movie. Acting ability is of similar importance in this live-action stunt show, too. Foreign visitors needn’t worry about missing the subtleties in the story, since there aren’t any. Here is a quick excerpt from the script:
“Mariner! Mariner!” BOOM! THUD! SMACK!
“Helen! Helen!” BANG! CRUNCH! THWACK!
“Argghh!!” CRASH! WALLOP! KA-POW!
Yes, pure Shakespeare. The most spectacular moment of all is arch-baddie Deacon’s fifty-foot fall into the water while on fire. Don’t try this one at home.
The seats near the action are blue because it’s a pretty color. Oh yes, and perhaps also because anyone sitting there is very likely to get soaked. This is not so much the result of spray from boats and jet skis, as because throwing buckets of water over people is one of the few pleasures in life afforded to the simple inhabitants of Waterworld and they are apt to make the most of it.
A full-scale model of a giant great white shark in the center of this section of USJ makes it abundantly clear what Amity Village is all about. Interestingly enough, the wall of the toilet nearby features several very large boulders of approximately the size most visitors would start passing if the shark were real.
So is the Jaws ride equally terrifying? That depends to a large extent on your feelings about latex. On the other hand, even those visitors who don’t scream still seem to have a good time. It would be unfair to give away too many details here, so suffice it to say this boat trip around Amity includes shootings, explosions, electrocutions, and a seemingly endless supply of giant man-eating sharks.
Geared to young children, this area of USJ includes such breathtaking attractions as giant crayons that spin round and round, and a big telephone. Moving swiftly on…
The Old West
Like New York, this is an interesting area of Universal Studios Japan simply to look at. Of the two major attractions on offer here, Animal Actors is the more amusing way to spend part of an afternoon and is definitely worth a visit. The live-action show features tricks and stunts performed by various animal stars, and although the presentation by accompanying humans is entirely in Japanese, the stunts themselves are highly visual, so it’s never very difficult to figure out what’s going on. Let’s be absolutely clear here, the current president of the United States does not make an appearance in this show. However, USJ have secured the services of the next best thing, a baby chimpanzee with the same first name. By clever training and careful handling, George has been taught to make gestures on cue, to respond to simple stimuli, and generally to act as if he understands what is going on. The same is of course true of the chimpanzee.
The other attraction in the Old West is Snoopy’s Sound Stage Adventure. This used to be the Wild West Show until Snoopy and his minions staged an invasion from neighboring Playland. The results are lamentable. Live actors (loosely speaking) sleepwalk between various small explosions and half-hearted fist fights. The show, which you should not watch unless you are forced to at gunpoint by a five-year-old, is utterly without redeeming features of any kind except that it eventually ends. If you are really this desperate for cowboy-themed entertainment, why not lock yourself instead in one of the Old West’s toilet cubicles and make do with Harve Presnell’s fine rendition of ‘They Call the Wind Maria’?
Hollywood Part II
Leaving the Old West and heading back to the front gate brings the visitor to an area where several major roads converge. This is strictly speaking the back end of the Hollywood area, but it’s more convenient to consider it separately here.
One highlight of this part of Hollywood is the Park Side Grille, yet another quality restaurant well worth a visit, and by sheer coincidence, one that sells beer. Mel’s Drive-In on the opposite side of the street offers wonderful vocal performances in its parking lot each day, most often of fifties and sixties pop classics.
Over the road is the Monster Rock and Roll Show. This features various classic Universal monsters such as Dracula and Wolfman suddenly belting out versions of hit rock songs for no apparent reason. Despite the weirdness of the concept, the show is extremely well done and always a lot of fun to watch. The highlight may be Frankenstein’s Monster singing the Santana hit ‘Smooth’. It’s always amusing to bet with a friend on whether someone wearing dark glasses and a lilac suit can make it to the bottom of a smoke-covered staircase while in size 40 boots.
The Last Word
So there we have it, a glimpse of the entertainment phenomenon that is Universal Studios Japan. Rides, shows, music, BEER – with all this on offer, anyone who hasn’t had fun by the time they leave just hasn’t been trying.
How to get there
From Osaka Station:
JR loop line to JR Nishikujo station. Change to the JR Yumesaki line and get off at Universal City station
Admission Pass (includes admission to all attractions)
Adult (12 -64) ¥5500 • Child (4-11) ¥3700
Senior (65+) ¥4800
Although opening and closing times vary greatly throughout the year, the park is always open between the hours of 10:00 until 17:00. More information is available at www.usj.co.jp/index.html (click at the bottom of the page for English).