Pachinko in the Movies

Pachinko is not just a form of entertainment, but has had a significant cultural impact in Japan and elsewhere. Let's take a look at some films in which pachinko has played a prominent role.


Two of Japan's most legendary directors were Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, and both of them featured pachinko scenes in many of their films. Pachinko makes an appearance in Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949) and To Live (1952). In the latter film, he has a character compare pachinko to life itself: "See this little silver ball? That is you, that's your life." In Ozu's Tea Over Rice (1952), the hero speaks the following lines:


You can get kind of hooked on pachinko. For just a few yen, you can lose yourself completely in the crowd -- it's an easy way to find solitude. There's just you and the silver ball. Your troubles disappear with a flick of the wrist -- pachin! The ball and you are one. You are utterly alone, and it feels great. It's a happy kind of solitude.


(In 1952, when To Live and Tea Over Rice came out, the arrangement of nails known as the "Masamura gauge" had just been invented, establishing the design still used in most pachinko machines today and setting the stage for pachinko's soaring popularity in the years to come.)


From then on, pachinko figured in many Japanese movies -- for example, Foundry Town, in which Sayuri Yoshinaga plays a girl who works in a pachinko parlor, and Chinjarajara Story, starring Junzaburo Ban, both made in 1962. (That was also the year when pachinko machines with "tulip" ball catchers appeared, igniting a new pachinko boom.)


The 20th film in Yoji Yamada's legendary Otoko wa Tsurai yo (It's Tough Being a Man) series, Tora-san Plays Cupid (1977), even features two different kinds of pachinko machines: an automatic one operated by Masatoshi Nakamura, who plays a boarder at Tora-ya, and a manual one operated by Kiyoshi Atsumi as the hero Tora-san.


Masayuki Suo's Shall We Dance?, winner of the Japan Academy Award for best film in 1997, made effective use of pachinko to express the protagonist's boredom as he kills time in a scene toward the end of the film. Suo also uses a pachinko parlor as a location in his more recent work I Just Didn't Do It (2007).


Non-Japanese directors, too, frequently depict pachinko. Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003), which won an Oscar for best screenplay, pans over the bright neon signs of pachinko parlors in its opening shots of Tokyo street life. Then, as the lead characters dash through the city, their route takes them right through a pachinko parlor. Pachinko is clearly an indispensable part of the Tokyo cityscape.


In fact, whenever film action takes place in Japan, directors seem to rely on pachinko scenes to liven things up. Examples include the American blockbuster Black Rain (1989), in which Japanese film star Yusaku Matsuda made his Hollywood debut; the Jackie Chan vehicles Thunderbolt (1995) and Shinjuku Incident (2009); and Final Victory (1987), whose script was written by the director Wong Kar-wai, known for Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love. Pachinko also figures prominently in the comedy Enlightenment Guaranteed (1999), in which two German brothers visit Japan to undergo training in a Zen temple.


Of particular interest is the Wim Wenders documentary Tokyo-Ga (1985), the famed German director's homage to his hero Yasujiro Ozu. In what seems to be his attempt to understand the love for pachinko that Ozu revealed in Tea Over Rice, Wenders devotes plenty of footage to images of people playing the game, and spent hours at it himself. This is how he analyzes pachinko's appeal:


I lost myself in one of the many pachinko parlors and the deafening noise, where you sit in front of your machine, one player among many, yet for that reason all the more alone, and watch the countless metal balls dance between the nails on their way out, or once in a while into a winning game. This game induces a kind of hypnosis, a strange feeling of happiness. Winning is hardly important, but time passes. You lose touch with yourself for a while and merge with the machine, and perhaps you forget what you always wanted to forget. This game first appeared after the last war when the Japanese people had a national trauma to forget.


From the era of Ozu and Kurosawa to the present, pachinko has appeared in many films and from many perspectives. Its popularity as a cinematic image shows that pachinko is a vivid symbol of postwar popular culture in Japan.


(Yuji Enomoto)



Films mentioned in this article:

Stray Dog (1949; Director: Akira Kurosawa; Distributor: Toho)

To Live (1952; Director: Akira Kurosawa; Distributor: Toho)

Tea Over Rice (1952; Director: Yasujiro Ozu; Distributor: Shochiku)

Foundry Town (a.k.a. Cupola, 1962; Director: Kirio Urayama; Distributor: Nikkatsu)

Chinjarajara Story (1962; Director: Manao Horiuchi; Distributor: Shochiku)

It's Tough Being a Man: Tora-san Plays Cupid (1977; Director: Yoji Yamada; Distributor: Shochiku)

Shall We Dance? (1996; Director: Masayuki Suo; Distributor: Toho)

I Just Didn't Do It (2007; Director: Masayuki Suo; Distributor: Toho)

Lost in Translation (2003; Director: Sofia Coppola, USA)

Black Rain (1989; Director: Ridley Scott, USA)

Thunderbolt (a.k.a. Dead Heat, 1995; Director: Gordon Chan, Hong Kong)

Shinjuku Incident (2009; Director: Derek Yee, Hong Kong)

Final Victory (1987; Director: Patrick Tam Yiu Man, Hong Kong)

Enlightenment Guaranteed (1999; Director: Dorris Dorie, Germany)

Tokyo-Ga (1985; Director: Wim Wenders, Germany)