August 17, 2008
Akihabara, or "Electric Town," is one of those places that otaku have to visit. It's just required. (Not least because your fellow otaku have a shopping list a mile long that includes all the things they can't buy this side of the Pacific, and have sent you on a quest to tick off all the boxes.) Akiba is a major tourist destination for foreigners and Tokyoites alike. Sundays are the busiest days, and not even the steadily-increasing, surprisingly-chilly August rainstorm could keep out today's visitors. Hugging our arms, we discovered that the rumours are true: you will find maid cafes, you will see goth lolis, you can buy things there that you can't in North America. 

Akiba is a very loud place. Seizure-inducing displays are everywhere, and the pachinko parlours never stop. Greeters use megaphones. Anime (most of it moe this season) blares from sidewalk televisions. After some time shopping, we wound our way through the noise to the Tokyo Anime Centre, which the website touts as some kind of museum. What we discovered instead was little more than a glorified gift shop. (In fact, that's a good description of Akiba in general. Imagine an anime-themed casino, then picture the attached gift shop. Now stretch it over several city blocks. That's Akihabara.) Although there is a glassed-in soundbooth for voice actors, and although we saw four women doing their thing inside it, that's about where the education ends. 

However, the TAC is useful for one thing: finding out about other museums. In our case, we got lucky and found a brochure for the Suginami Animation Museum . The SAM is way out on the Maranouchi/Chuo Line, but it's open on weekends and features far better content. Among the highlights are the anime reference library, which holds rare films and manga for public use (I watched other people watching Grave of the Fireflies, Crayon Shin-chan, and Russian animation), an anime theatre with regular showings, and workstations where you can learn how to do your own key animation. The museum is geared toward a hands-on approach to showing viewers how anime gets made, and it does the job -- watching short films of animators doing work on both Jin-Roh and One Piece proves how loving and careful these people have to be, even with high technology at their disposal. 

The SAM is a tiny museum, but that's because it's concise and not too self-congratulatory (which cannot be said of many special-interest museums). It hosts special exhibitions, and it's accessible for viewers of all ages. It's out in the suburbs, away from the noise, and it's worth the trip. Do as we did: visit Akiba (and K-books) for some fresh manga or artbooks, hit the Akiba Ichi food court (you can't miss it; it's in the same building as the TAC), then get on the train. You'll be glad you did.

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