Saturday, August 13, 2016

Film Review: In search of 'The Lost Arcade'

I'm glad to see it's starting to get the attention it deserves (see here and here), because The Lost Arcade (2015) is the best subculture documentary I've seen in a long time, and I've seen plenty (and even helped on one). It's the story of Chinatown Fair, the historic penny arcade turned video arcade in NYC Chinatown, how it closed down and then reopened (in quite a different form), and the community of people for whom it was a second home.

The documentary's singular and intimate focus on one arcade, its historical significance, and (most importantly) the people who inhabited it, has so much to say about so much more than its title would suggest, but it does so in an understated way. Its tone is less instructive, and more reflective. Instead of being explicitly analytical, it's more atmospheric and empathetic.

The Lost Arcade paints a portrait of one very specific microcosm--primarily the players of one genre of video games in one arcade in New York City at one particular point in time. But this narrative resonates far beyond that time and space. It is a story that has played out the same way in other locales and in other circumstances, so that many of us, who have never visited Chinatown Fair but belong(ed) to our own transformed communities, know exactly what the documentary is talking about.

Years from now, dismissive critics might naively point to how dated the film is, how gaming and arcades and neighborhoods and cities have moved on, but they will have missed the point. Filmmakers Kurt Vincent and Irene Chin have documented something that will inform and inspire us for years to come.

That's because it's more than a movie about a genre of video games, or video games in general, or one or even a thousand video arcades, or one particular subculture/community, or one particular neighborhood in one particular city. It's about all those things, and more.

It's about subcultures in general: how they change, for good or ill, whether by choice or because of forces they can't control, and the consequences of those changes. The film shows us how home video game consoles and the Internet forever changed the way video game players interact with each other.

It's also about what's happening in cities and neighborhoods across the country, about the devastating effects of gentrification--altering the urban landscape, and the displacement of local culture for the sake of profit.

Most of all, it's about the communities we build, the places we inhabit not because we have to be there, but because we want to be there. It's about Sam Palmer (the owner of Chinatown Fair) creating a vibrant space for people from all walks of life to interact, initially gathered by a shared interest in video gaming, and ultimately staying because they grew attached to the people they met there.

It's a celebration of those kinds of communities--the fact that they exist, the fact that we can create and be part of them. But the film is most poignant as a story of loss. Although Chinatown Fair was the last of its kind in Manhattan, the documentary is called The 'Lost' Arcade, not the 'Last' arcade.

For the players at Chinatown Fair, they really did lose their community. It was taken away and transformed (brutally, some would say). I watched the film in April when it played as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase. I still get choked up when I recall the scene featuring Akuma Hokura, one of Chinatown Fair's most important denizens, visiting the new incarnation of the arcade. The scene featuring arcade manager Henry Cen--struggling to come to terms with the way his vision for the arcade had been perverted--also hit me pretty hard.

Among those of us who belong(ed) to subcultures that have changed, some of us have felt that same sense of loss. It's a familiar story: we were part of something good, and while some things have changed for the better, we've also lost some important things along the way. More so than video gaming, the subculture/community I belonged to in the 90s and early 00s was anime fandom. I used to (but no longer) dream about anime conventions the way the opening narrator of The Lost Arcade dreamt about Chinatown Fair. We (the anime fan community in those years) were part of something special that only existed in that particular form for a relatively brief moment in time, and it might never come back.

Don't get me wrong. It’s more than just bittersweet nostalgia or a knee jerk reaction to change. Things do evolve and improve, and change is not always bad, but the documentary shows us what happened to a community for whom change came knocking, not from their own efforts and desires, but from outside forces who didn't understand or care about them. Instead of just memorializing them, however, The Lost Arcade shows that community's beautiful and hopeful response.

In the end, The Lost Arcade is a story of redemption in progress, a reminder that community is not just where we happen to find it; it is wherever we decide to build it. We can nurture and grow it when given the opportunity. It is a warning not to take those opportunities for granted. We have to seize them. We have so much to gain if we do, and so much to lose if we don't. We owe it to ourselves to make it more than just a dream.

Official site:

About the author

I earned my PhD studying anime fandom in America. In my professional life, I build and nurture online communities for companies and their customers. I am not much of a video gamer, but grew up going to arcades in Southern California and South Korea in the 80s and 90s. I've never been to Chinatown Fair, but my dad went there as a kid after moving from China to NYC in the late 1940s.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Gainax Postmodernism - Evangelion, Space: 1999, and other things

I started this post with the simple intent to share/comment on the two videos below. I ended up writing an(other) essay on Gainax. Oops! Click the videos to view. Scroll down if you want to read.

Getting to know Gainax

For over two decades now, fans have been talking about, picking apart, and generally obsessing over Neon Genesis Evangelion.

I am no expert on that particular show/franchise. I look to otaku like Eva Monkey ( ) and the good folks at Eva Geeks ) to keep me informed and educated on the vast world of Evangelion fandom and lore.

I am, however, very interested and decently aware of things related to old-school, pre-Evangelion Gainax. Over the years, I've had the opportunity to see, meet, and in rare cases interview a number of Gainax staff and collaborators, including but not limited to Toshio Okada, Hiroyuki Yamaga, Takami Akai, Yasuhiro Takeda, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Hiroki Sato, and Toren Smith. In 1996, I got to see Hideaki Anno speak on two panels at Anime Expo--a general panel about his own work, and an Evangelion-only panel.

The Gainax sensibility - the role of references in postmodern storytelling

Anno, and all the folks mentioned above - they are otaku through and through. They were part of the first otaku generation and helped define the otaku ethic for the rest of us, not just via self-referential shows like Otaku no Video, but in everything they produced. The way they see the world, especially visual media, and reflect it back us in their own work resonates with otaku of all stripes.

The Gainax creative sensibility might be described as postmodern*. Focusing on their earlier work, it is heavily and unapologetically referential, not as a cheap way to cash in on the goodwill of fans (of the works being referenced), but simply because the act of referencing was part of their creators' toolbox. Those creators, as fans themselves, liked what they saw and wanted to incorporate it, but differently and hopefully better, with a certain mix of reverence, nostalgia, and parody.

For the most part, the references they used are "hard", not really intended to be understood by the majority of the audience. "Too bad", Anno might say. That's because they are there to help tell the story, not because fans begged for (or creators promised any) fun "easter eggs". You don't need to be a fan of everything Anno, Okada, et al. enjoyed to be entertained by their works. But if there's any overlap, or you simply like looking for references, it does add an extra dimension to the enjoyment and appreciation. The stories work at the surface level, but they also offer a lot to those who like to dig (e.g. upon repeat viewings).

Here's an analogy to illustrate the point further. You don't need to be a fan of Flash Gordon or The Hidden Fortress to enjoy Star Wars, but it would probably change your experience of it. On the other hand, based on how they were written, the prequel trilogy almost requires a person to have seen Eps. 4 - 6.

Hideaki Anno's visual culture influences

One day, someone (perhaps Anno himself) will catalog all the things that influenced his work. For now, we can only find scattered clues and guess if they are relevant. I will offer up a few random observations, obviously conjecture and potentially flat-out wrong, but's fun!

My friend Sean at Zimmerit already covered Hiroyuki Yamaga's music video for Fence of Defense - Data No.6. It does include things that look like precursors to some visuals in Evangelion. Nadia too, for that matter! But I'm surprised not to have seen much talk about the intro of Gerry Anderson's Space: 1999, referenced in both Evangelion and Otaku no Video. Anno's Gerry Anderson fandom is well-documented.

Stylistically, the Space: 1999 intro feels so similar to the opening of Evangelion. View both videos and judge for yourself:

A film Eva fans might want to check out is Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970).
An Evangelion fan noticed a scene in which the audio played backwards comes from the final scene of that film.

Based on that, it seems pretty likely that Anno has seen Colossus: The Forbin Project. Here's a scene from that movie that required nudity to be covered up:

Sorry for the poor quality image, but that's a wine glass covering up the nude protagonist of the film. Obviously, that's similar to the scene familiar to all Eva fans below:

Clever censoring of this sort is not unique to Eva and Colossus: The Forbin Project (see ), but let's be serious. Anno did not rip off Austin Powers; he is far more likely to have seen and been influenced by Colossus: The Forbin Project (or not).

We could go on and on. I've been sitting on an Evangelion/Nadia/Illuminatus analysis for years. Who knows if I'll ever write that up! In the meantime, perhaps we should all check out Anno's latest work: Godzilla Resurgence (2016).

 * My favorite film director, Sergio Leone, was dubbed by Jean Baudrillard as the first postmodernist film director. Leone, a fan of American westerns, transformed the genre by using the elements of Western mythology in new and subversive ways. On a side note, Anno himself proclaimed his love of westerns at AX96 and bragged that he probably knew more about them than anyone in the room. Perhaps one could argue that Macross was the first major postmodern anime; it wasn't created by Gainax, but it was creatively spearheaded by two of their own generation - Shoji Kawamori and Haruhiko Mikimoto - and Anno, Yamaga, and Akai got their professional start working on it.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Tomorrowland Revisited

Disney's Tomorrowland is just about 1 year old. It was almost certainly my favorite film of 2015. My son and I saw it in the theater 3 times. It was very polarizing (with exactly half of reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes giving it a thumbs up).

That 50% rating is misleading though. It doesn't mean most people found the movie to be 50% enjoyable. For quite awhile, I obsessively tracked people's reactions to the film, and it's clear to me that, while most people didn't bother to watch it, the ones who did either loved or hated it.

My first tweet about the film was this:

A few weeks ago, Sean Wilson on Flickering Myth wrote the following article:
Tomorrowland: or The Curse of the Standalone Blockbuster 
Sean Wilson re-evaluates the unfairly maligned Disney movie, and why its failure is an unfortunate reflection of the modern-day cinema industry…

There's a lot in that article I don't agree with, but it was a good read nonetheless. On Tomorrowland Times (see below), I posted the following reaction:
I finally got around to reading this. My brief thoughts:
Even for those of us who liked the movie, it's so hard to get agreement on what the movie was about. Perhaps it's due to the faulty expectations created by the confusing marketing campaign. I *still* don't really know how the film should have been marketed.
Anyhow, my perspective is that Tomorrowland is not about nostalgia or even utopianism; it's about progressivism 
The movie is not so much optimistic (as a whole) as it is *about* optimism--how it is lost, and why we need to work hard regain it instead of giving up.
Tomorrowland has spawned a small cult fandom. "Tomorrowland Times" (on Facebook and Twitter) is the place to go if you want to be part of it.