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100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience

Japan

100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience wants to wax nostalgic about the history of Japan’s arcades. There’s a lovely scene overseas. One informed by a consistent record of innovation. The arcades hold both the most pure and abstract examples of the form. They are bright and loud fever dreams caught somewhere between the seventies and the early-aughts. They project an infectious optimism about social play and new ideas that shape the way we interact. There’s a distinct subculture around arcades that’s well worth documenting. Brad Crawford’s crowdfunded effort provides a fragmented view of it.

The documentary approaches the arcades in an optimistic way. It’s presented with mumbled narration that goes without credits (it’s just as well). The clumsy narration’s cobbled together with a number of translated interviews that count for more.

The interviews and interspersed arcade photography are the heart of the project. There’s something refreshing and genuine about them. A crowdfunded project, it appropriately takes the communal perspective throughout. Mostly the interviews are done with whoever’s around; arcade managers and seasoned regulars. The feeling is every opportunity to develop a story is squandered with the collection of otherwise nicely produced recordings and it’s a shame.

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The structure’s real scattershot. Half the documentary’s spent on relaying the early entries in the primary arcade genres and exploring their spaces in context. It holds Space Invaders as the father of the shmup and the arcade scene as a whole. The story is that demand to play Space Invaders outpaced the supply of hundred yen pieces at the coining press. It was proof of the arcade’s enormous potential overseas and an entry point for Japan’s investment in the hobby.

Street Fighter II and DDR are the other cornerstones. We’re introduced to known competitors for each respective genre and it begins to feel like it’d benefit from being a film about the competitive scene instead but it only scrapes the surface of personalities like Justin Wong & Diago (also profiled in King of Chinatown) but as with all of 100 Yen’s subjects, they’re quickly filtered off in favor of a nice cabinet shot. It doesn’t tell the human story or the videogame one and that’s frustrating when the right subjects for both are in front of the camera the entire time.

The focus then deteriorates. Although it is a short film the pacing collapses out from under it. 100 Yen ventures off, occasionally drifting back to genre discussions or more interestingly, the way arcades are designed. If there were a blueprint before it went out the window here, wasting the well-done first half in the process, with nothing to meet it. All of the misc. factoids have fallen to the middle and ending and once again, there’s some fine content, only it’s been misplaced. Structurally it’s One-Hundred Yen of Solitude by accident and all it needs to be is edited.

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Brad Crawford’s created a documentary in search of a story. It’s a subject well worth a documentary although this one only scratches the surface. While the documentary never provides a real argument and is closer to advertisement for Japan’s arcades, there’s a lasting value in preserving arcades and ensuring we’ll at least have this snapshot of them in the future. 100 Yen doesn’t exactly come to any conclusions but it never sets out to find anything either. It’s a breezy documentary about a neat scene, and is informative, but not suited for any audience especially.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

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