One of the absolute highlights of my trip to Japan was the visit to Toei Kyoto Studio Park, in Kyoto, on Wed. March 30, 2016. This is a combination theme park, museum, and studio run by the Toei Company, one of the leading film, TV and animation studios in Japan. Since 1950, Toei has been turning out a steady array of Japanese pop culture staples, including samurai and yakuza movies, martial arts films, superhero TV shows, animated sci-fi and all sorts of other time-honored Japanese genres. The Toei Kyoto Studio Park offers a samurai village backlot that visitors can explore to their heart’s desire, as well as a visitors center filled with galleries devoted to Toei’s 60-year animation output, live-action tokusatsu and sentai TV series, Japanese film history in general, and the singer Hibari Misora. The backlot is in active use as a set for Toei TV shows, plenty of which I’ve seen, and I will share images from shows that were filmed there. It was an immersion in Japanese pop culture history like I’ve never experienced anywhere else.
Right from the start, one is greeted by posters advertising the studio’s latest productions and current TV series, including the newest sentai series, “Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger,” the newest Kamen Rider series, “Kamen Rider Ghost,” and the “magical girl” anime series, “Maho Girls Precure.” I managed to see all three shows multiple times on TV in my hotel room during my stay. I also got to see Toei’s latest Kamen Rider movie, KAMEN RIDER ICHIGO, on the big screen at a multiplex in Osaka. It was quite thrilling because it brought back actor Hiroshi Fujioka, who played Kamen Rider when the series first premiered on TV in 1971. (Once a Toei character, always a Toei character.)
The first attraction I viewed in the visitors center was the animation gallery, filled with posters, pressbooks, still photos, action figures and video clips from Toei animated movies and TV series from 1958 till the current TV seasons of “Maho Girls Precure,” “Dragon Ball Z,” “One Piece,” and “Sailor Moon,” the newest season of which premiered while I was in Japan. (2016 happens to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of Toei Animation.)
There was a wealth of material from that golden decade when Toei Animation produced some of the most spectacular animated features in their history, from 1958-1968, when the studio embarked on a bold program to produce Disney-quality animated features based on classic fairy and folk tales and designed to be uniquely Japanese, but also to be shared the world over. Several of these films did, in fact, get some theatrical release in the U.S. They include: HAKUJDADEN (Panda and the Magic Serpent), SHONEN SARUTOBI SASUKE (Magic Boy), SAIYUKI (Alakazam The Great), ANJU TO ZUSHIOMARU (The Littlest Warrior), LITTLE PRINCE AND EIGHT-HEADED DRAGON, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS BEYOND THE MOON, and HORUS, PRINCE OF THE SUN. These and other films from that era, as well as popular TV series, were each treated to their own display case.
CYBORG 009 (1966)
“Gegege no Kitaro” (1968)
ANJU TO ZUSHIOMARU (1961)
Also on display were action figures from “Devilman,” “Mazinger Z,” “Dr. Slump,” “Dragon Ball Z,” “Sailor Moon,” “Maho Girls Precure,” and others:
And dozens of posters:
There was even a lineup of life-size figures of the characters from “Maho Girls Precure”:
All this was comparable to the array of items seen at the Suginami Animation Museum, which I visited in Tokyo and covered in a previous Japan Journal.
Nearby were display cases filled with action figures from some period live-action franchises, not all of which were produced by Toei. For instance, “Lone Wolf and Cub,” seen here, was not a Toei production:
But “Kamen no Ninja Akakage” (aka Red Shadow) was:
I have a VHS tape with a compilation of scenes from this show, which was the first live-action ninja series filmed in color. I reviewed it on IMDB.
Elsewhere in the center was one of the most eagerly anticipated exhibits: a whole museum devoted to the most popular Japanese recording star of the postwar era, Hibari Misora, who had a career in music, film, and television lasting from 1949 to her death at the age of 52 in 1989.
I’ve written about some of her films here (click on the Hibari Misora tag at the bottom of this entry) and have six of her films in my collection, as well as DVDs of her TV appearances and a stack of her CDs.
The museum devoted to her featured a portrait gallery, a timeline, numerous posters and stills, costumes, and film and TV clips playing on various screens positioned around the space, all presided over by a life-size statue of her.
There was far more Misora material than I could process in one visit.
There weren’t many captions in English, so there was a lot of information presented that I was unable to absorb.
I was happy to see FUTARI NO HITOMI (1952), the film she made with Hollywood star Margaret O’Brien, represented:
There was so much here that I was just overwhelmed. Misora is hardly known in the U.S., but she’s remembered fondly in Japan and I got very emotional after exploring this worthy tribute. How many performers of her caliber are given this kind of recognition in the U.S.? Elvis Presley has Graceland, but does Judy Garland have a museum? Frank Sinatra? I can easily look it up, I’m sure, but I’ve never heard of one for either.
Upstairs from the museum was a large gallery devoted to the history of Japanese cinema from 1896 on. There were posters and stills everywhere, many of which I recognized. Unfortunately, there were no English captions for the hundreds I didn’t recognize. There was an extensive timeline.
There was a gallery of prominent figures from the Japanese film industry, each with a description and a display of objects associated with them. I recognized four of them, directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya, and Hibari Misora. But there were no English identifications so I was unable to pick out more of my favorite directors, e.g. Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, Keisuke Kinoshita, Teinosuke Kinugasa, Masaki Kobayashi, Kihachi Okamoto, Ishiro Honda, and Kinji Fukasaku, to name a few. If I had known of this gallery, I would have studied their images before leaving for Japan. I would have recognized famous figures from Japanese animation, but I didn’t see any represented, not even Osamu Tezuka or Hayao Miyazaki.
Given the abundance of film stills elsewhere on the floor, I can understand not including stills with the pictures in this gallery, but if they had included stills with each filmmaker, I’m sure I would have been able to identify more of them.
There were smaller galleries devoted to actresses and actors:
There was also a display case of awards received by Japanese films at international film festivals, but no captions in English to tell us which films won these awards, except when it was from an American festival.
I was able to figure out that this Golden Bear Award from the Berlin International Film Festival was bestowed on Tadashi Imai’s BUSHIDO, THE CRUEL CODE OF THE SAMURAI (1963), a film I have yet to see, although it’s available on Amazon.
Next, I went outside to explore the backlot. There are several streets of an old Japanese village with full interiors, enough to serve as a backdrop for numerous samurai and ninja TV shows and those episodes of superhero TV shows where the characters go back in time (a not uncommon plot device, much like when the Star Trek crew or the Power Rangers went back in time to the Old West).
There were people in costume walking around. Some were Toei employees assigned to enhance the visitor experience, while some were simply visitors in costume.
There was an indoor ninja show and an outdoor samurai show.
And occasional still and poster galleries in some of the buildings.
Back in the visitors center there was a whole gallery devoted to scenes from different Toei films and TV episodes from the 21st century that used this backlot.
I have some of these episodes in my collection and here are scenes from these shows matched with shots I took of the specific backlot street where they were filmed.
And going back a few decades to “Shadow Warriors” (1980):
Returning to the visitors center, I went upstairs to an extensive gallery devoted to Toei’s tokusatsu (live-action sci-fi special effects) franchises, Kamen Rider (dating back to 1971) and the annual sentai series (dating back to 1975) which have been supplying the U.S. Power Rangers franchise since “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” premiered back in 1993. (Last year I covered 40 Years of Sentai on April 5, 2015.)
There were stills, posters, video clips, and multiple timelines (alas, not in English).
“Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” was singled out in one of the timelines:
Best of all were the life-size mannequins in Kamen Rider and Sentai costumes.
Every Red Ranger from Goranger to the current Red Ranger (in Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger)…
And, of course, the Red Ranger from “Zyuranger,” who became the first Red Ranger on American TV, thanks to “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers”:
In most cases, I was able to identify which series spawned which costume.
There were gift shops in the visitors center where one could purchase Hibari Misora’s films and various Toei releases, including the anime features celebrated in the animation gallery.
They were kind of pricey, though, and I hesitated to plunge into making a bunch of purchases and having to squeeze them into my suitcase for the trip back to the U.S. I actually have quite a few of the titles I saw available for sale, but some are pretty rare and I wish I’d been a little bolder.
The last attraction I enjoyed before leaving the park was a gallery devoted to onetime Toei star Ken Takakura, who is most renowned for his yakuza movies of the 1960s and ’70s. I wrote about a couple of them here. He made a few films in Hollywood, including THE YAKUZA (1974), with Robert Mitchum, and BLACK RAIN (1989), with Michael Douglas.
As an added bonus, I took a Kyoto streetcar line from the Toei site back to Hankyu Omiya station, from which I would take a train back to Osaka.
Getting back to Toei, I must say that the company’s been doing a pretty good job of gradually getting key titles from its back catalog into the U.S. market over the past few years, with such series as “Mazinger Z,” “Devilman,” “Cutey Honey,” “Galaxy Express 999” and “Captain Harlock” getting released in box sets here. In addition, they’ve taken the bold step of taking the first two sentai series to be used in the Power Rangers franchise, “Zyuranger” (1992) and “Dairanger,” (1993), and releasing box sets of them in Japanese with English subtitles through Shout Factory. I hope there will be more.
And one last selfie from the trip: