2016 has been a big year for Universal Studios Japan (USJ), which is celebrating its 15th anniversary with the “RE-BOOOOOOOORN!” campaign. The last few years have seen a huge growth in attendance to the Osaka-based theme park, with figures jumping from around 8 million in 2009 to almost 14 million in 2015, making it the fourth most attended theme park in the world. This is in large parts thanks to the Cool Japan events that have focused on Japanese popular culture (from Attack on Titan to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu), but another key factor is the various seasonal offerings that the park provides.
Chucky's Churritos. Who wants a taste?
Friday September, 9th up to Sunday November, 6th 2016 has seen the annual Halloween Horror Nights take centre stage. Following the lead of its older brother parks in the United States, USJ decks itself out to celebrate the increasingly popular festivities through a mix of special limited-term mazes/rides, street performances and themed foods, such as Chucky’s Churritos.
From opening until 6pm, on the outside at least, the park resembles its usual self, with the only notable difference being the swathes of park attendees dressed in costumes varying from the bizarre to the frightening. This being Japan, where Halloween has a tendency to take the form of National Cosplay Day rather than as strictly a celebration of the grotesque, tourists may be surprised to see that Audrey Hepburn and Santa Claus are considered as much a part of the Halloween spirit as a Zombie or Frankenstein, but it’s all part of the charm of Japan’s sometimes wonky adaption of western culture. It’s not just the customers that find a way to adopt Halloween into the daylight hours, however, as USJ provides a special Halloween-themed version of its Universal RE-BOOOOOOOORN! parade that has been running through the year, and an excellent Halloween-themed market which runs throughout the day.
Behind the scenes, the scares and spooks start from 12 PM with the opening of various indoor Horror Mazes throughout the park. There is a mix of attractions based on existing horror properties (Chucky’s Horror Factory 3, The Exorcist: A House of Exorcism and Nightmare on Elm Street: The Maze 2) and original themes (Trauma 2: The Experimental Hospital Ward of Horror) which open up, providing various levels of scares. USJ itself rates the three movie-based attractions as a 4 on their horror scale, but Trauma 2 goes all the way up to 10; The rides notes warn that Junior School age students will not be admitted, alongside those who have issues with live insects, strange smells, rubbing alcohol and physical contact and you even have to sign an agreement in order to participate! These mazes are a wonderful addition to the park during this time of year and really add to the atmosphere and make Halloween at USJ a unique experience. Unfortunately, this uniqueness comes at a price; demand. To combat the clamour to experience these short term presentations, all except for Chucky’s Horror Factory can only be entered by those in possession of either a timed-ticket (available from opening and which, as you would imagine, disappear fast) or one of the pre-sold Express Passes, which come in tiered prices that go all the way up to being the same price as a park-entry ticket itself (¥7,400). They are more than worth the effort to see but, without great luck or great expense, you won’t be able to do them all in just one visit.
When the clock finally strikes 6:00, however, even the previously safe confines of the streets of USJ succumb to the evil of Halloween. With an explosion which rings around the park, the Street Zombies spill out into the Horror Area, which encompasses most of the San Francisco, New York, Amity and Jurassic Park areas, and spend the rest of the evening/night terrifying unsuspecting park guests. With some excellent make-up and some genuinely quite disturbing movements and costume designs, there is a definite creepiness that really enhances the fun to be had in coming to the park at this time of year. The zombies are accompanied by various displays, such as Resident Evil-style abandoned tankers and several Zombie-containment cages dotted throughout the park; these occasionally play host to short performances, which predictably end with some kind of gel-based explosion that is big enough to be heard throughout the park. The street-based scares aren’t just limited to the Horror Area, however; this year saw the debut of the Death Eaters and their attack on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The 6:00 explosion also sees the Cursed Attractions start, with Terminator 2: 3D, Backdraft and the Cinema 4-D Theatre all being presented in slightly altered fashions; Backdraft and the Cinema 4-D Theatre being taken over by Gakko no Kaiden (School Ghost Story) and Terminator 2: 3D becoming infested by Sadako, of The Ring fame. In these cases, the rides start off as usual but soon veer off of their usual course into Halloween mode and provide a unique twist even for those who’ve been on them multiple times. For example, during the Terminator 2: 3D, when the Cyberdyne broadcast is interrupted, it isn’t Sarah Connor you see, but a certain Well that will be familiar to any fan of J-horror.
The Terminator 2 3D Show Featuring Horror Favorite, Sadako
Alongside Tokyo Disney Resort, USJ is a must visit for any theme park connoisseur who happens to find themselves in Japan. The park is ever expanding – with the addition this year of the Jurassic Park area’s The Flying Dinoaur, the world’s longest flying roller coaster, and the upcoming Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem simulator ride in 2017 (which sadly replaces what was the world’s last remaining Back to the Future ride) – and is getting more and more effective at putting on great seasonal events. Unfortunately, Halloween Horror Nights time is up, but there is no need to worry; the excellent Universal Wonder Christmas starts 11th November, and will feature the final appearance of the park’s legendary World’s Most Illuminated Christmas Tree, which is in the Guinness Book of World records as the having the most lights of any artificial tree in the world. USJ really is somewhere you can’t go to just once.