Let’s Pachinko!

Wherein our hero goes a-gambling on Japanese TV.

IMG_0189Midday. Hot and muggy in Osaka. Sweaty and sore from shopping, freshly full of ramen noodles, we weave past the throng to Dotonbori, which Jevon calls “the Blade Runner bridge” because some of the towering billboards nearby briefly appeared in that film. We pause to get our bearings. Through the crowd, we see a Caucasian face approaching us with intent, followed by a small camera crew. Looks like another adventure, I think.

The white face introduces himself as Nick, and he inquires if we’d like to play pachinko for Japanese TV. He speaks fluent Japanese to the camera crew, and he and a unilingual co-host work each other up to a boisterous froth while the five pudgy white guys weigh his strange request. Jevon recently told us a story about an aspiring Japanese comedian who agreed to star in a reality show, only to find himself locked in a room for months, humiliating himself for food and water. “But,” he shrugs, “this seems legit.” Only Jevon and I agree to their offer.

Nick seems a bit surprised. He asks us to wait while they get some footage of other tourists declining. Then he leads us through the crowd, introducing us to other team members whose names I instantly forget. Among them are two attractive young women, whom I take at first to be fellow volunteers, but who it turns out are there to cheerlead us while we make fools of ourselves in the pachinko parlour. Ten production members, three cameras, and two white rubes. “Have you ever played pachinko before?” I ask Jevon. “Once,” he replies, “but I still don’t get it.”

Pachinko is like a slot machine crossed with pinball. Dozens of tiny ball bearings rattle around, and if they fall into the right holes, you get more ball bearings to propel through more holes. Modern machines also feature videos and/or moving 3D elements, but the basic mechanism of moving metal balls remains pure, and incidentally makes the game louder than the Light Brigade. It’s gambling, and just like bingo halls across Canada, pachinko parlours lure in millions of addicts and pensioners each day—except gambling is illegal here, so the Japanese all politely agree that they are playing for kitschy prizes, not for cash. Nick and his crew show us the prizes before we play, filming and commentating our reactions. Off-camera, they ask us not to mention money, please.

Jevon and I keep waiting for the twist. We already clarified that we were not going to spend our own money, and Nick agreed, even promising us the chance to keep our winnings. There’s a lot of waiting outside the parlour while they set up, and then finally they announce that we’ll be playing one of the horror-movie-themed machines. “Ringu!” Says the co-host, referring to a film wherein characters who watch a cursed video are doomed to die within a week. I nudge Jevon. “That’s the twist.” But we’ve both lived a full life. They resume rolling. We enter the parlour.

IMG_0209Imagine the engine room of a starship running at warp speed. A sprawling bright white room, radiant with blinking lights and roaring with noise. The starship engineers are Japanese seniors, dispassionately adjusting dials and amassing plastic tubs of tiny silver spheres. Some of them smoke, but a tangle of vents overhead sucks the smoke up, replacing it with cold, pure air. We wade into the noise like it has mass, and I wonder how the camera crew is going to film under these conditions. They’re wondering the same; they struggle to fit us with microphones, then they squeeze Jevon into one of the tiny chairs and press in around him to watch him try his luck.

Quickly, the staff gets complaints about the shoot, and so all non-essential team members are pushed into a back corridor. This includes me and Nick, and now I can see past his smiling showman persona, and I can tell this is not a comfortable place for him, either. We chat; he’s a comedian from San Francisco, he’s lived in Japan for eight years, this is his first reality TV gig. He doesn’t really consider himself an actor—“Well, except…” he hesitates, “Do you know anything about D&D?” When I tell him I write adventures for Pathfinder, the endless thunder of the parlour drops away for him. He’s been role-playing for three years, but it’s so hard to find gamers in Japan! What’s my favourite character class? He likes rangers… and so on. We snuggle into a pocket of mutual familiarity amid the noisy strangeness.

Eventually, I am summoned to the game. It turns out I’m not playing Ringu, but a vaguely pirate-themed game with three treasure chests. They pour a tub of ball bearings into the machine, then coach me as I twist a knob to control their velocity. One of the cheerleaders leans into my ear and says, “Hold it like woman.” I laugh. “Like Canadian woman?” She laughs.

The game is endless and inscrutable. I win balls, I lose balls. It’s hypnotic but there’s nothing to do, so I ham it up for as long as I can muster the energy. The hosts want me to earn a chance to choose one of the three treasure chests, but I can’t even reach that stage of the game. After 20 minutes or so, they give up hoping that a foreign novice will turn into a grandmaster in front of their eyes, and they hustle us outside for some exit interviews. By now, there is a crowd of gawkers, including the three friends we left behind.

IMG_0190“Did you like it?” “How would you rate it?” “Would you play again?” Jevon and I settle on a rating of 70/100. I tell the hosts, with as straight a face as I can manage: “If somebody offers me their balls, then I will play with those balls.” Once the cameras stop rolling, Nick hands us 5000 yen apiece—money earned by losing someone else’s money.

The shoot wraps up and we’re told to check YouTube for “Let’s Pachinko!” sometime around October. Nick begs for my contact info, so we can talk some more about Pathfinder. We rejoin our friends and go drink beer. I fret very briefly about the big-picture ethics of endorsing a country’s unacknowledged gambling addiction on national television. But then Jevon says “Kampai!” and we toast and all the ball bearings just tumble into place.

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