Story: Japanese Video Stores

The “Science Fiction Monster” section

The “Science Fiction Monster” section

Japanese video stores.  They’re well-stocked and ubiquitous in big cities and small towns.  The problem is they’re just too confusing.  In the US, movies are organized within 5 to about 10 genres.  The categories are kept at a low number to cater to those looking for a specific movie, but remain specific enough for those just wanting to curl up with a good “romance.”  In Japan, however, the movies are organized into small subgenres, making it much more difficult to find specific films.  That means if you’re looking for Batman, you can’t just go over to action/adventure and look under the “B”s.  You have to go to the Science Fiction aisle, then the “Science Fiction Action” section, and then look under the “B”s.  Wha?

I counted 42 subgenres in the last store I was in, and that was only for the American movies.  This is the story of my experience looking for movies in a Japanese video store.  This is an observation.

No matter where you end up in the world, sometimes there’s just nothing to do.  Living in Japan in a neighborhood with no other English-speakers to talk to, I’ve found myself with a good deal of free time on the weekends.

What can I do to quell the dead dusty air on a Saturday?

There’s walking…  But this is March, and it’s still cold.  If it were summer it’d be too hot.

There’s eating…  You could eat 6 or 7 meals a day on a Saturday if there’s that little to do.  That is if you don’t mind eating alone.

There’s going to the mall and not buying anything…  There’s looking around in the mall, going into stores, seeing the same things you saw the time before (and the time before, and the time before)…  People are watching, so you could act psyched.

“Wow!  Slippers!”

But you’re not really that psyched.

Or you could stay in and hide.  I was cool with hiding when I lived in the states.  I didn’t mind being in public either.  I could blend in.  I wasn’t particularly good-looking, so I didn’t attract a whole lot of attention.  No one seemed to notice me unless I talked to them—or shrieked at the site of a mouse; or stopped suddenly in a grocery store to convulse and foam at the mouth.  Here, as an American living in Japan, I never blend in.  I’m always blinding people with my porcelain-white skin.  My teeth are tea-stained.  My hair isn’t as thick as it used to be.  Perhaps the Japanese wonder why I don’t look like a movie star.

But staying in and avoiding their looks of curiosity isn’t that easy.  Not as easy as it was in the states.  The TV’s all in Japanese, so that’s out.  I’m on a diet, so that 7-meal idea isn’t really gonna work.  What to do?

I was a video nut back home.  International film was my favorite.  I could talk French New Wave.  I was better at listening, but I could talk it too.  In Japan, I can’t really do this anymore.  All of the French New Wave titles at the video store are in French and Japanese.  No English.

Okay, so no French culture for me.  What about Japanese culture?  I could get into Anime, Imamura films, let’s check those out.

Hm.  Japanese only.  Can’t blame them for making sense.  This is Japan after all.  98.5% of the people here speak Japanese as a first language.  What would they need English subtitles in movies for?

A lack of options at hand leads me to the American movies.  There’s a lot of them.  I can read basic Japanese writing—hiragana, katakana, and some kanji (the more doodle-esque characters of Japanese writing)—but it’s still hard to find a movie.  I’m not too into American films to begin with, so I intuitively head for the Jarmusches.  He’s one of the few American filmmakers for whom I can make an exception.  Where is he?  I run a few titles through my head.  Titles I’ve already seen.  There’s Down by LawMystery Train

Let’s start one at a time.  Where’s the “D”s?…

(A man comes down the aisle I’m standing in, which is just wide enough for one person at a time to squeeze through.  He stops and kind of half-turns to look at the videos next to me—his body pointed towards the direction he was walking, his head twisted back uncomfortably.)

…The “D”s…  There are no “D”s.  It has to be a “D” followed by a vowel sound in Japanese.  Down by Law would be under the “Dah”s.  Where are the “Dah”s?…

(He’s still next to me.  He seems antsy.  I turn and make eye-contact with him.  He snaps to life.  His eyes widen.  He makes an “Ah!” sound, smiles and sticks his hand out as if ready to karate chop something.  I lean back and flatten myself against the shelf behind me.  He sneaks by, karate-chop hand still in the ready position.  I lean forward and resume my search.)

…The “Dah”s…  They could be anywhere.

I find the “Dah”s.  There are “Tah”s mixed in with the “Dah”s.  This is jarring at first, but I get the hang of it.

No Down by Laws.

What about Mystery Trains?  Any of those?


I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed this sooner, but I was only looking in the Drama section.  There are walls and shelves full of movies and genres the Jarmusches could be in.

I continue down the aisle.  I’m in a new genre.  “Society Drama.”  I see American History X…a Japanese movie (odd considering it’s a foreign film section)…and, uh, Super-Size Me?  Was that a society drama?

The next genre down the line is “Human Drama.”  Is Down by Law a human drama?  Is this where I find the Jim Jarmusch movies?  I see titles like Forrest Gump and Cast Away.  What makes those human dramas and not just drama dramas?  Christmas with the Kranks?  What’s this doing here?  Oh!  There’s a Jarmusch.  Coffee & Cigarettes.  But why is it in  human drama?  I always took it for a comedy.  In one scene Iggy Pop and Tom Waits sit over coffee.  They’ve both recently quit smoking and decide to have a couple cigarettes for old time’s sake.  And it’s okay because the beauty of quitting smoking is they’ve quit.  They can have a couple, because they’ve quit.  Is this not supposed to be funny?

I left the video store that day confused, tired, and without a video to tide over my boredom.  I got ahold of some friends, asked them about torrenting.  I was still apprehensive about it at the time.

Does it eat up too much memory?

Am I gonna get viruses?

How illegal is it?

I was angry.  I like paying for movies.  I like supporting art that I like.  Why was it so damn hard to find videos in that store?  Why can’t there just be a drama section, a comedy, an action/adventure, and a romance like stores in the US?  Why can’t it be more a matter of knowing alphabetical order in lieu of the specific kind of movie it is (or isn’t)?

I’ve been back since then.  I’ve rented movies, but with difficulty.  I’m a man who knows what movie he wants to see.  I read articles, see what’s good, I’ve got a few filmmakers I like to follow, and this meticulous subgenre-izing doesn’t support that kind of film hunting.

Out of curiosity one day, I thought I’d go back and record all of the different genres for western movies in a Japanese video store.  Just for the shear purpose of recording silliness.  Just so you can see what I have to go through every time I want to do something so simple as to locate a movie at a video store.  I figured it would be…at least a relevant start for my Tokyo Life column.

This isn’t a video store.  It’s a “hyper media shop.”  Get it right.

This isn’t a video store. It’s a “hyper media shop.” Get it right.

No matter where you go in Japan, you’re bound to see a beautiful girl–hair perfect, make-up impeccable, skirt short, heels tall—alone.  Whether she’s drinking coffee at Starbucks, eating a Big Mac, or in this case looking for a video, you wonder what she’s doing.  What’s she about to do?  You don’t dress up like that unless you’re going somewhere.  Is there a party in town? is she a celebrity? is she shooting a rap video?  Does she have a boyfriend?  One of them passes me on her way to the Japanese film section.  I’m on my way to the other side of the store, to the American films.  The other side of the world.

Immediately, I’m greeted by tits.  The first DVD box my eyes land on:  naked girls and tits.  I’d be more respectful with my language regarding female private parts, but when they’re presented like they were—out; being sold to me—they’re tits.  I’m in the “Sexy” genre.  This place gets right down to it, doesn’t it?  Right in plain view for any kid who wanders away from the Nintendo DS section, too.

It’s hard taking notes on my pad of paper.  The aisles are so narrow to make even legit title-searching stressful.  I wonder if there isn’t a collective sigh of relief for every customer that leaves the store out of frustration.

I’m now in the area for old-but-new releases (this is adjacent to the “Sexy” genre, by the way).  Night at the Museum 2 is on the Action shelf.  The next 2 shelves are all Korean titles.  After that we’ve got “Asian Horror & SF (Science Fiction),” “Asian Action” and “Kung-fu.”  The Japanese like to dissociate themselves from the rest of Asia in their own little way, so by “Asian” they mean any other country in the continent aside from Japan (and I guess Korea, too, considering it has its own aisle).

After Asian and Korean are the western movies, starting with comedy.  First we have in its own small upper-left hand corner “Family & Animals.”  I wonder if that’s supposed to mean “family movies with animals in them,” or “family movies + animal movies.”  I decide it must be the latter when I come across the animalless Home Alone.  Where’s Snakes on a Plane, though?  That’s got animals in it.  PiranhaJaws?  Those are animals, why aren’t they in the Family & Animal section?  Oh, I get it now.  It has finally dawned on me.  By Family & Animals they mean “family movies + animal movies that are family-themed.”

(The beautiful girl I saw earlier turns into my aisle.  She scans the videos near me quickly, walking, not looking very hard.   She gets closer and closer to me, and then stops—her body facing in my direction, her head turned back.  She smells like lavender.  I try to make eye-contact.  She’s not having it.  I lean back to let her pass, but she doesn’t move.  She’s looking at the man on the other side of me, he having come from the opposite direction.  The 3 of us stand there immobile.  I’m trying to paint myself as flat against the shelf behind me as I can without knocking it over.  The other two are making hesitant, yet eager movements, trying to get by.  They gesture for the other person to “go ahead” and pass them, yet they themselves are the actual ones to disregard their offer and take a chance step forward.  Neither of them accomplishes anything, so I take the liberty to act as if I am the one who wants to get by one of them.  I choose the guy, just because, and he flattens himself against the shelf in front of him, and I step by.  Through vaudevillian flattenings-against-shelves and slidingings-pasts, both of them are able to leave the aisle from the opposite ends in which they came.)

Next is “Horror Comedy,” another abortive subgenre with its own new alphabetical order.  It occupies the shelf space of about the length of my forearm.  Following that are some interesting titles in “Human Comedy”:

Dumb & Dumber (Japanese title, “Mr. Dumber”)

Pineapple Express (Japanese title, “Smoking High”)

Three Amigos (Japanese title, “Cactus Brothers”)

I’m not sure why these are in Human Comedy, though, and not just general comedy.  They indeed concern humans who are in comedic situations, but can you name me a comedy that doesn’t?  Of course you can, but those would go in the Family & Animals section.

After that we have “Kigeki,” which means “comedy” but for some reason is written using the Japanese word.  Maybe this means real comedy—things that are actually funny—rather than the western concept of funny.  It seems Serving Sara (2002), Happy Endings (2005), and Mr. Bean fit the bill.

After the “Comedy Etc.” section (M*A*S*HPolice AcademyPink Panther… [I’m surprised they didn’t just call it “Government Intervention Comedy”]) we move to the “Love Romance” wall.

One thing that strikes me (other than that “Sports” falls under this category) is a movie on the “Love Story” ledge.  The English title is White Skin, but for the Japanese release they changed the title to the English word “Vanilla.”  I don’t know whether to take this as a hip new racial slur, or as a warning to stay away from waffle cones on hot summer days.

I’ve just happened upon the “Long Selling” shelf.  As a musical interlude, let’s take a look at the top 5 movies (at the time of sighting) ranked in descending order of popularity.  Drum roll, please:

5)  Steven King’s The Mist (2007)

4)  Death Race (2008)

3)  Dragonball Evolution (2009)

2)  Red Cliff (2009)

1)  Wanted (2008)

Now, to the Action wall where the lines blur even finer.

“War Drama”:  Deer HunterSaving Private RyanChe, and every other Che Guevara movie.

“War”:   Full Metal JacketPlatoonBlack Hawk DownChe Guevara & Castro (was this not “drama” enough to be grouped with the other Guevaras?).

“Adventure”:  Indiana JonesPirates of the CaribbeanPirates XXX (that porn with the million dollar budget)Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson’s Night at the Museum (note that this is also not in the comedy section.  I guess the Japanese didn’t find this or the sequel very humorous.  Funny, neither did I).

And then we get into the plain absurd.  Next is “Commando Action.” This has the Chuck Norris vehicles…Rambo…and, you guessed it, Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Interesting how Hulk Hogan wasn’t included in the mix for his Suburban Commando.  Actually, he was kind of a pansy in that movie now that I think about it.

And then we have “Police Action” with Bruce Willis flair, and for some reason Miss Congeniality.  Next is “Political Action,” which is just movies with spies in them (James Bond…Mission Impossible…a porno called Spy Wife).  After that is “Battle Movie” with the Jean-Claude Van Dammes, and then “Violence Action” with the Quentin Tarantinos and Robert Rodriguez’s.

Plain old Action takes on heists (Oceans 11, 12, and 13), martial arts movies that don’t star Jean-Claude Van Damme (Steven Segal…something called Ninja vs. Kung-fu), and miscellaneous knock-off superhero movies (not Iron ManMETAL Man).

Following that is “High Speed” with titles like Wild RacerRacing SpeedSpeed RacerHigh Speed RacerHigh Speed Battle, or, basically, anything with the words “high,” “speed,” or “race” in the title.  I wonder why High Speed Battle wasn’t placed in the “Battle Movie” section, though, seeing as there’s a battle taking place.  It probably owes to the title containing “high” and “speed,” 2 of the 3 required words for the subgenre.  Had it been titled High Speed Battle Movie, then it might have needed its own shelf.

And last on my list of ridiculous movie genres in Japanese video stores is “Panic.”  What is “Panic” you might ask?  What’s the difference between Panic and perhaps Suspense?  The difference is in the Suspense section there’s a chance you might find a good, or at least well-respected movie like Fargo (should be in the comedy section) and Psycho.  In the Panic section, you’re guaranteed trash.  Going down the line, a few box covers that stand out are:

The Day Another Tomorrow (not the famously derided The Day After Tomorrow, the knock-off with poor grammar in the title)…

Dead Wave (an ‘80s Russian movie with a front cover as cheesy as they come of a giant wave attacking a city, yet for some reason it’s “supported by the federal agency for culture and cinema.”  Communism was never one for its quality entertainment…)…

Tornado Insect (enough said)…

Deep Impact (that movie about asteroids pummeling Earth that wasn’t Armageddon)…

-Hey!  There’s Snakes on a Plane (Japanese title, “Snake Flight”)…

-and then Snake Train (apparently there’s a snake-infestation-on-public-transportation-vessel franchise in the works)…

There are many other subgenres to laboriously dig through for the movie you want, but I think this is enough to underscore my point that this is UNNECESARILY COMPLICATED.  It’s way too difficult to find things.  Not only that, a lot of the titles are in the WRONG SECTION.  Throw out all the specifics.  If it’s funny, put it in comedy.  If it’s sad, drama.  If things blow up the majority of the movie, action/adventure.  Make things a little easier for those who know what they’re looking for.

They got CDs too

They got CDs too


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