When my parents were young, action movies were about gunslingers, sheriffs and saloons. For my in-laws in Osaka, however, cinema was more about swords and samurai.
Usually set in the Edo Period (1603-1868), jidaigeki, or period dramas, follow the sagas and clashes of Japanese warriors and their steel. Despite a steady decline in production since the 1970s, there are new films being shot all the time for both television and the silver screen. At the Toei Kyoto Studio Park in Kansai, you can get close to the action and see what it’s all about. According to their website, the sets here are used to shoot more than 200 productions a year, and the park itself offers an interesting opportunity show your kids he magic of filmmaking — all while exposing them to a little Japanese history.
Just after you arrive, I recommend checking the show schedules right away and heading directly to one. There is much to see and experience here, but some of it requires extra fees, so knock the performances that are included in the price of admission off your list first. These shows are unique to the park, and I feel the most entertaining activities you can do with the kids here, but they also finish a little earlier, so don’t miss out like we did because of poor time management.
A good place to start is the “Behind the Scenes” show, which is a nice primer for kids on just how movies like these are made. Audiences stand behind a glass wall looking into an indoor studio set built to resemble an Edo Period village. Three presenters — one acting as the movie director and two performing as samurai in costume — go through the stages of shooting a variety of typical scenes.
They explain how daggers and arrows appear to be hurled into their victims with deadly accuracy. They demonstrate how actors can leap off the roof without breaking a leg. And most interestingly to us, they show how the angle of the camera can transform a scene and make everything seem plausible. Using large monitors in front of the stage, the performers showed us how different the camera’s perspective can be from what a live studio audience can see. For example, my kids were amazed at how a little pile of cotton and a single tree branch — placed just so in the background and foreground of a shot — can make an entire scene look like it is covered in snow. These revelations are not delivered in a dry, educational way, but rather in a convivial, comic tone, filled with moments of slapstick.
Once finished, we sought out the streetside, sword-fighting spectacle. Be warned: those near the front row may be called upon to participate. My son and several others stepped forward to clang steel against steel with a few samurai baddies, which made for our favorite photo opportunity of the day. From here, we watched a re-enactment of Edo Period street performances and then wandered into Restaurant Chambara (Restaurant Swordfight) for a late lunch. Like most amusement parks, the cuisine on hand was not spectacular, but our udon noodles and pork cutlet were about the same as you would get at a typical family diner.
While the kids finished their meals, I wandered over the costume rental shop and watched as patrons tried on kimono and sat in front of lit mirrors as stylists applied makeup and attached attached wigs in the chonmage style that was common among samurai. As you can imagine, this experience comes at an additional cost and our kids had little interest in dressing up.
Instead they begged us for other funhouse-type activities that also cost extra. Uncharacteristically, we relented, forking out several rounds of ¥500 for my son and daughter to navigate structures with names like Amazing Maze and Ninja Mystery House. Our lapse of judgement became clear later when I looked at my watch and realized we had to leave soon, but still hadn’t seen several of the park’s attractions hat were part of the ticket price.
Toei Kyoto Studio Park is not a large place, but we had only seen roughly half of it. We had walked the cinematic streets, admired the sets and caught a few shows. We had even spent some time in the Ukiyo-e Woodblock Print Gallery, posing for cheesy pictures that placed us into the artworks of legends such as Katsushika Hokusai and Toshusai Sharaku. What we didn’t do, however, was manage our time well. By the time we had to go, we still hadn’t seen the “Ninja Show,” the park’s main event, which I’ve been told is full of the kind of action and drama that the movies are famous for.
Too bad, but this error may provide me with an excuse for a second visit: I want to take my mother-in-law. She would enjoy Toei Kyoto Studio Park on a level I couldn’t possibly comprehend. Having watched the TV dramas filmed on these lots for decades, she grew excited when her grandkids described what they had seen and done. Next time, our visit to the Edo Period will be a three-generational affair.
Toei Kyoto Studio Park is a five-minute walk from Uzumasa Station in Ukyo-ku, Kyoto, and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entry is ¥2,200 for adults, ¥1,300 for junior high and high school students and ¥1,100 for elementary students and children older than 3. For more information, visit www.toei-eigamura.com/en.