Travel and Sports Bronze Winner: Showdown at Shinagawa

by Bill Zarchy

Bowling for Budget in Tokyo

On our first night in Japan, Randy dragged us up the hill behind our hotel to go bowling.

Shinagawa Lanes was an electronic wonder attached to the Shinagawa Prince Hotel, a large tower with tiny rooms, where Randy had stayed on his first visit to Japan years before. Under the bowling alley lurked an arcade with an eclectic assortment of video games I’d never imagined.

Little did we know that this would be the eventual setting for a double-or-nothing Bowling for Budget challenge against our Clients.

Shinagawa held 80 lanes, each with its own video monitor and two hidden TV cameras. One camera showed you bowling; the other showed your ball striking the pins. They switched back and forth automatically. At the end of each frame, the monitor displayed an automated scoring screen that counted pins and showed your name, cumulative score, and the speed of your last ball in kilometers per hour. On unoccupied lanes, the monitors played domestic music videos of all kinds, from darkly-tanned, red-haired Japanese rappers and hip-hop dancers, to boy bands, Spice-Girl-like girl bands, heavy metal headbangers, and one video with two young Japanese men crooning romantically to each other and kissing at the end of the song.

It was light years away from the homey 1950s ambiance of the bowling alley near my home in California. I was used to a different crowd, a multi-racial, casually dressed mix of old-timers, teens and young families. These Japanese bowlers looked prosperous, men in suits with faces red from alcohol, young girls and guys in nice outfits one might wear to the office. We were the only foreigners.

The four of us arrived at about 8:30, wanting to bowl three games each. The clerk bowed, smiled, and suggested we take two lanes, as they weren’t busy. That way, he explained painstakingly, we would finish by their 10 p.m. closing time. We respectfully declined. Our bowling was rusty, and we didn’t want the faster pace of using parallel lanes. The clerk then went through the kind of neuro-lingual lockup I sometimes see in Japanese who fluster that they are not being understood, that their English has suddenly failed them.

Rattled, the clerk called a manager to explain carefully that they thought it would be better for us to bowl faster on two lanes, so they could close at 10. We said we understood, but no thanks, and we grabbed our shoes and headed out to bowl.

At about 9:30, the music videos stopped abruptly on the TV monitors adjacent to our lane, and the words ‘CLOSING TIME 10 OCLOCK’ appeared in block letters. We noticed then that ours was the only alley still in use on our half of Shinagawa Lanes. We hurried through our third games as maintenance crews oiled and polished the lanes on both sides of us. We were out by 9:50, with thanks and bows, but Randy couldn’t resist asking impishly, “Say, what time do you close?” They handed us a printout of our scores in Japanese, frame-by-frame and pin-by-pin, a fun memento to tape to the hotel room mirror.

We swooped down to the video arcade, where we gunned down skeletal monsters, reeled in large-mouth bass, water-skied like champions, and drove big rigs down the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica. Each game for 100 yen, about a buck. All the locations and evil people in these Japanese games looked distinctly American.

*    *    *

Meanwhile, we had work to do. On this, my eighth trip to Japan, I was the director of photography for a small American film crew. Randy was the director, Larry the producer, and Jon the video engineer. We had flown in from Bangkok for a couple of weeks, to shoot a corporate project for a huge Japanese electronics manufacturer, and our Tokyo-based Clients were difficult to work with.

We spent a day scouting locations with Carole, our local production manager, in preparation for shooting the following week. Our Clients were charged with booking on-camera interviews for us with engineers and marketing personnel from other companies. But the process could be trying—they all worked grueling hours and had little authority – errand boys for higher-ups. Clearly someone else was in charge.

For example, after a long morning scouting, we had visited all but one location. We were only a few blocks away in downtown Tokyo, but our appointment was four hours later. Our Clients, typically, refused to call to move up the appointment, or to let Carole or Larry call. I’m sure they felt that constantly resisting the impudent wishes of the pushy barbarian filmmakers was important to maintaining decorous relations with our interview subjects. No one wanted to rock the boat. The process frustrated us, but we walked around, ate lunch, chatted, window-shopped, and arrived early.

Before my first visit, I had naively assumed that Japanese people, with their modern, technologically advanced culture, were much like Americans. Unlike the characters in the Kurosawa movies of my youth, they eschewed kimonos and sandals for Western dress, made great cars and electronics, commuted on trains, worked in skyscrapers, bought and emulated our music and styles, watched our movies. But dissimilarities in culture persisted beneath similar styles, clothing, and technology. For us, calling on the day of an appointment to change the time was an inevitable consequence of the ad hoc, truncated time clock of filmmaking. For them, it was just not appropriate.

The world would be boring if we were all the same, I told myself. But it might make this project easier.

*    *    *

By the end of our first week in Tokyo, we had bowled three times.

We were improving. One day Randy invited our three main Clients to bowl with us. Only of them showed up, still dressed in suit and tie from work, and typed in “Takk” as his name on the electronic scoring system, I was taken aback. They addressed us by our first names, which we preferred, but for each other they used surnames with “Mister,” the occasional “Miss,” or the useful suffix  “-san,” an honorific for either gender. So I didn’t know any of their first names. After one game with Takk, who hadn’t bowled in a while, I urged him to remove his tie. He tried it for a few frames, but his accuracy suffered, and he soon retied it. In all, we bowled five games, then bid goodnight to Takk and headed back down the hill to our hotel.

The next time we saw Takk he was back to “Mr.,” though we chatted about our fun bowling together. He never used his first name again, even when we bowled later with his colleagues from the Company.

*    *    *

Our interviews for the film proceeded slowly. Later in the workweek, Randy challenged our Clients to a bowling match—double or nothing for the budget of the film. Of course it was a joke, because the bet involved hundreds of thousands of dollars, but we had enjoyed spending time with them outside of work, we were having fun bowling, and, well, we thought we could beat them. If we found all this so exciting, I said to Jon, we’d been on the road too long.

But on our penultimate night in Japan, the challenge was answered: We bowled against three of our Clients in the “Showdown at Shinagawa.”

Joke or not, the excitement grew as we approached the big night. The Clients greeted us warmly at the Lanes as they stretched and loosened up. Without their ties and jackets, they looked less like timid bumblers and more like slim, agile, athletes. And they averaged about 15 years younger than our graying Team USA.

Ultimately, it was anticlimactic. We stayed pretty even for the first couple of games. But by the third game, especially after working long hours that week, we were tired. The Clients, refreshed from days of watching us work, gained strength (and pin count) as the evening wore on. We laughed and cheered together, high-fived our spares and strikes, and bemoaned our splits and sevens, but they beat us fair and square. The Company won the Showdown.

*    *    *

The next day, we completed our interviews in a drab conference room at the Company’s ultra-modern office building in central Tokyo. Carole magically produced huge personalized trophies in one day, despite the fact that it’s hellishly difficult to get rush service on bowling awards in Japan. The inscriptions read “U.S.-Japan Bowling Championships,” along with personal alliterative nicknames for each of our Client opponents, such as “Killer,” “Shooter,” and “Assassin.” Randy presented these mementoes to our Clients at the conclusion of filming, in a heart-warming display of international sportsmanship.

They invited us out to a Victory Dinner at a basement restaurant nearby. The beer and scotch flowed freely, we bowed and laughed and toasted each other and our bowling prowess.

One of our Clients spent much of the dinner staring morosely at his trophy, muttering to Jon that he had “never won anything before.” He sat down next to Larry and poured out his heart, practically weeping: he worked too much, he hated his job at the Company, and his young daughters loathed him because he was never home. Despite the presence of his colleagues and the formality of their work relationship, he was frank about his frustrations in this after-work and alcohol-enhanced setting. Next day, by custom, his coworkers would forget what they had heard.

Another of our Clients told me that his own wife and daughter had just come to Tokyo that week from another city to live with him for the first time. He had been married for four years and a father for two, but they had never lived together before, a fairly typical arrangement in Japan. I was touched that he shared this with me. Clearly bowling boosted rapport.

We also met the Boss of our Clients, the man who had pulled the strings behind the scenes during our time in Tokyo. Mostly he sat smiling quietly amidst the group, wreathed in cigarette smoke.

We finished dinner and hailed cabs. Our weeping Client hung on Larry and begged: “Take me to America with you.” As Larry peeled him gently away, we said goodnight, promised to come back and bowl with them again someday, and went to our hotel to pack.

Beset by neon visions of the Showdown at Shinagawa, I emptied the dresser drawers into my suitcase. Our weeks of bashing heads with the Clients over logistics clattered around in my brain: Can’t we schedule that sooner? Later? Tomorrow? Are we shooting here or somewhere else? When? What’s it like there? Why can’t we scout it now? Why can’t you make a decision?

I think the Clients cared more about winning than we did, for they treasured their victory—and their trophies. Bowling brought them an opportunity to relax with us, a brief respite from the grinding wheel of work.

Few tourists go to Tokyo to bowl; I never saw other foreigners at Shinagawa Lanes. Bowling was a campy diversion for us, a bit of exercise, a relief from the tedium of making a corporate film in a resistant culture, and a sideways glimpse of modern Japan. Even though we lost the Showdown.


Bill Zarchy is a freelance director of photography, writer, and teacher in San Francisco. He has shot film and HDTV projects in 30 countries and 40 states, including three former presidents for the Emmy-winning West Wing Documentary Special, the Grammy-winning Please Hammer Don?t Hurt ?Em, feature films Conceiving Ada and Read You Like A Book, PBS science series Closer to Truth, and countless high-end projects for technology and medical companies. Roving Camera: Bill Zarchy?s Blog appears at http://billzarchy.com/blog. His tales from the road, personal essays, and technical articles have been published in Travelers? Tales and Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers, and American Cinematographer, Emmy, and other trade magazines. He has a BA in Government from Dartmouth and an MA in Film from Stanford and teaches Advanced Cinematography to grad students at San Francisco State University.

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