Universal makes a splash among Japan's theme parks

Universal Studios has set records since its March opening, while other parks struggle.

Pwhissssh! Rata-tat-tat-tat! Aaaaggghh!

Like the campy action-packed B movie it was, the "Waterworld" show at Universal Studios Japan is designed to leave audiences soaking wet.

But the big question for Universal Studios, which opened a $1.4 billion theme park here in March, is: Will it float with the Japanese public?

As the country's economic outlook has grown increasingly bleak, public enthusiasm for Japan's many theme parks appears to have waned.

Wild Blue Yokohama, a water theme park near Tokyo, is closing at the end of the summer. The Reoma World theme park in Kanagawa Prefecture, meant to give visitors a taste of various Eastern cultures, closed in August 2000. Fuji Gulliver Kingdom in Nigata Prefecture went bankrupt. And, earlier this year, Seagaia, an enormous new resort and water park funded by taxpayer money in Miyazaki Prefecture, went belly up.

With 23 out of 30 major theme parks in Japan operating in the red, according to a recent study by Teikoku Databank, why would anyone build another?

Apparently, because someone looked at this flat tract of landfill and uttered the words from another Hollywood blockbuster starring Kevin Costner: "If you build it, they will come."

Norman J.T. Elder, director and general manager of marketing for Universal Studios Japan (USJ), says that while the economic backdrop for the park's opening is not as attractive as he would have liked, the park is a box-office hit.

Japanese have been lining up as if Universal were giving tickets away. By June, the park already counted 2 million visitors - a world growth record, its managers say. USJ expects to exceed its "conservative" estimate of 8 million visitors in the first year of operation. At about $50 a head for admission, that's a lot of movie money.

"Japan still has significant wealth, and a higher per capita income than in the US. The appeal of entertainment from the US - authentic entertainment - is high," says Mr. Elder.

If the emphasis is on authenticity, that is because Japan is full of pseudo-villages and amusement parks that aim to recreate various corners of world. Ever since Japan held its first World's Fair here in 1970, the country has been nurturing a love for things foreign.

Cultural, literary themes

About half of Japan's theme parks are dedicated to "cultural" themes, many of them focused on individual countries. Huis Ten Bosch gives a taste of Holland, for example. And there's Parque Espana (Spain), Tazawako Swiss Village, Glucks Konigreich (Germany), and Roshia-mura (Russia).

Foreign literary appreciation is also a favorite. Maruyama Shakespeare Park features a reproduction of the Bard's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, Britain, and Canadian World in Hokkaido highlights the Lucy Maud Montgomery classic, "Anne of Green Gables," set on Prince Edward Island.

In Hakone, southwest of Tokyo, people pay $12 to $15 each to walk around a faux-French village dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince."

The proliferation of such parks offering foreign culture in a fishbowl evinces a longstanding Japanese tradition of "taming" nature and putting it into the confines of a safe place.

"However, to tame, or wrap the beauty of the wild in the security of a bounded park, is to experience the beauty without the attendant fears of the site itself," writes British social anthropologist Joy Hendry in the Social Science Japan Journal. That provides "all the pleasures, with no need to practice another language, apply for a visa, or make a long and tedious journey."

Of all these themes, nothing sells like the United States. The only theme park that appears to be flourishing is Tokyo Disney, which will add a Disney Sea version this fall.

In kind, Universal Studios sells itself as much as a trip down America's Main Streets and Broadways as a movie theme park. Simulated neighborhoods include Manhattan, Hollywood, and San Francisco. But the fact that Louise's restaurant is from "The Godfather," the tenements are a mock-up of "West Side Story," and Mel's Drive-In diner is from "American Graffiti" is lost on most of the visitors, many of whom seem just old enough to remember "Jurassic Park."

And that is to say nothing of a frustrated and forlorn "Mae Westo" (Mae West) a curvaceous, beaming blonde in a snug red dress who hangs out with Charlie Chaplin in the "Rodeo Drive" district. "I keep telling them I'm Mae Westo, but no one seems to have any clue who I'm talking about," says the young American portraying the risque comedienne of the 1920's and '30's.

Language a barrier

In fact, those coming to experience a slice of Americana and its "world of magic" - as Steven Speilberg dubs it in the park's introductory film - should beware.

Non-Japanese-speaking visitors who come to major attractions such as "Back to the Future," "Backdraft," and "T2" will find themselves unable to understand much. At "Waterworld," staged on an elaborate shipwreck set complete with muscly stunt actors on flying jet-skis, the most the average non-Japanese will be able to grasp is that the good guys have spotted "dry lando" and must save it from the bad guys.

"I didn't understand a thing. I just watched the stunts," says Australian Kaley Schelks. "I thought there would be more English. They're probably not going for that market." USJ says it does hope to bring in tourists from around Asia, for whom a trip to America is a long shot. But park visitors from places such as Taiwan and Hong Kong say they often felt clueless. Films had no subtitles or headsets in English, and even the main map at the front gate is in Japanese only.

"The only drawback is the language and price," says Dalina Sharif, an Indonesian visitor. "The food is so expensive that the only thing we could afford to buy all day is bread."

Others, like a group of housewives gushing about their "bicycle ride" to the celestial home of E.T., say the two-hour train trek to Osaka - costing more than $100 each way - is worth the trip. And that may be a good sign for the city, which pitched in about a quarter of the funds necessary to bring Universal Studios here. Once the area is fully developed - including a high-tech business park, mega-hotels, and a Universal shopping district - city officials estimate the project will bring in an additional $6.9 billion in revenues a year.

At a time when new jobs are hard to come by, no one here can argue with the arrival of a massive new employer in town. Some 43,000 people were employed in the construction of Universal Studios, its adjacent shops and hotels, and 6,000 are employed at the park itself.

Among them is Yutaka Ishida. His own visit to Universal Studios in Florida attracted him to apply for a job here. "Maybe we don't have our own dreams," he says, "and so theme parks sell dreams to us and let us pretend it's reality."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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