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100 Yen: The Official Story Trailer from Strata Studios

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By John Delia & Lance Cortez

It’s actually quite disconcerting that in the last ten years or so, when the era of the “documentary” has emerged and these real life tales have become a dominant and attractive storytelling genre in film, the medium of video games and the topics of video game history has been so glaringly misrepresented.   The video game industry, over the last 25 years, has emerged from dark basements and children’s bedrooms to become a dominant force in the entertainment world.  The care given to the release of a tent-pole, new generation game surpasses that of some of the largest summer blockbusters.  But in the domain of serious documentaries during their new renaissance in theaters and Netflix queues, video glimpses into the world of gaming has been mostly relegated to the internet (ahem, Retroware TV and such).  This is why docs like “100 Yen” are so important.

2009’s The King of Kong blazoned a trail of video game themed documentaries that attempted to provide a glimpse into a world and industry that is now over 40 years old.  TKOK took a story-based, David & Goliath narrative and presented it through the lens of classic arcade appreciation.  Chasing Ghosts, a much overlooked film which languished on the coattails of The King of Kong  followed the lives, the sadness and the triumphs of the first “hardcore gamers” of the early 1980s as they approach middle age today.  Most recently, Indie Game: The Movie showed the sheer accomplishment of will and art as we followed a set of determined and talented game creators who transcended the gigantic game industry’s glass ceiling and found success in independent game creation.  Brad Crawford’s 100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience is the next entry into the small company of films that shed light on the world of video games.  The film takes a more straight-forward and historical approach through b-roll, interviews, and narration as it presents the history and culture of Japanese arcade gaming.  The film showcases not only the story of how it occurred but for the first time in any documentary, it provides some of the people responsible, on hand discussing the matter.  This leads into a more factual look at the story rather than giving personal takes of how it started.  Hosts give the story more credibility. It adds to the presentation of how these “game centers” play a much larger role in modern Japanese society and popular culture – far greater and much deeper that what the arcades were able to accomplish in the West.

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100 Yen follows the history of Japanese “game centers” and provides a view into their influence by focusing on the three main milestones and eras of the Japanese arcade timeline: the proliferation of shooting games after Space Invaders, the rise of fighting games after Street Fighter II and the growth of rhythm games thanks to Dance Dance Revolution.  100 Yen does a great job at taking the viewer through the importance and influence each major era played on the long-lasting success of Japanese arcades while also showing how these genres continue to thrive and evolve in different ways to this day.  Interviews with arcade owners, employees and professional gaming champions help lay out the perspective into a foreign culture far greater than the abbreviated views we gleam from fan-translated episodes of “Game Center CX.”  The film, from a production standpoint, is truly a visually stunning work.  Just getting a glimpse into the working of Japanese arcades with well-crafted cinematography by Bryan Verot is alone worth the price of admission.  Much care was taken into the creation of this scant 68 minute film.  The brevity, however, does not detract from the film – it is the perfect length to get the point across and give the tighter historical perspective.  With some reformatting and slight editing, 100 Yen and its short running time and straightforward but well-oiled presentation has great potential to be repurposed as a cable network documentary – not unlike a special you could see on National Geographic, History or even PBS (in fact, I hope the filmmakers consider this when looking for distribution beyond their DVD release).   Upon first viewing, I found some limitations and was initially distracted from the narration style and Jean Baudin’s ambient, bitpop score, but after the first few minutes, the latter became much more apropos as what could be considered overbearing at first, only aided in in presenting the familiar arcade atmosphere of constant bleeps, bloops, whooshes and other melodic 8-bit sound effects.   The overwhelming sound helps you feel like you’re watching the film in one of the arcades it’s presenting.   One of my biggest gripes about the film is that, as is expected, a good majority of the interviews are subtitled.  It might have been nice to have this dubbed in English by a narrator but it is understandable due to the amount of guests on screen.  As an American who has never seen the inside of a Japanese arcade, I find myself wanting to pay attention to b-roll of the arcades but I’m forced to read first.  At worst, it means I get to go back and watch the film again!

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As the documentary shows the evolution of the Japanese game center from early Space Invaders halls to small spaces lined with Sega New Astro City candy cabs pumping shmups just as fast as the million bullets on the screen, Brad Crawford also provides glimpses into the games, their appeal and the talent of those who have reached the pinnacle of mastery.  It becomes apparent early on that Japan not only has a rich arcade history, but it still thrives to this day.  Just as corporations took over the gambling world in Las Vegas during the 70s and 80s, we see that the same has happened with coin-op in Japan as the large gaming firms like Taito and Sega have expanded as the smaller mom and pop establishments begin to disappear.  100 Yen shows not only the cultural differences that allowed arcades to maintain popularity in Japan but it provides the case for how the maturity and growth shown through the progressive eras and genres that dominated these game centers aided in their survival.  The comparison to the North American market provides reasons and glimpses into the business-model failings which caused the precipitous decline of arcades here in our part of the world.  100 Yen does a fine job, in its last act, at presenting the dichotomy between the cultures and provides an outlook and prediction into what the future may hold for this once-dominant form of social competition and entertainment.

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All in all, 100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience is a worthy entry into the slow-growing arena of video game documentaries – it is definitely worth picking up now on DVD.  Considering the film offers a unique and well-crafted view into the culture of Japan, its love of gaming, its social implication, along with the gaming skill of key players, 100 Yen stands alone as a document and testament to the significance of Japanese arcade gaming.  Insightful interviews and straightforward historical fact make this a must see for gaming history enthusiasts and anyone who can recall those years long past when arcades were still the place to be here in the West – those who may also long for the kind of success they still exhibit throughout Japan.