There are plenty of differences between Tokyo’s Haunted Mansion and the other Mansions around the world - some of them major and some of them fairly minor. But ultimately, I think the differences that result in perhaps my favorite mansion experience boil down to main areas: Tone and Presentation.
The first differences in tone come long before you enter the attraction, with the fact that the ride is placed in Fantasyland. One would suspect this would lead to a lighter, more comedic tone. You’d be dead wrong. This mansion is darker and scarier than it’s siblings. In the queue the first instance that something is amiss are the classic tombstone gags (Master Gracey, Laid to Rest, etc.). There are just a few present in plain view, and here, rather than being overgrown, they mark fresh burials with mounds of dirt in front of the tombstones. Whereas before the focus of the gag would be on the humorous epitaph, the eye is now drawn to the much more immediate reminder of death.
Inside the first few rooms, not much is different, other than that the stretching room narration (and all following) is in Japanese. As a non-Japanese speaker, this does perhaps remove some of the humor from the attraction, though all of the visual gags with the stretching portraits are well in place here. The next change is the lack of any of the “Sinister Thirteen” portraits in the doombuggy loading area. This is important as we board and move on to the ride.
Once we start the ride proper our doombuggy often turns almost immediately to one side in other versions. This always struck me as odd due to the fact that the doombuggy was originally conceived to mimic a walking tour of a haunted house; in Tokyo, this is rectified by having the doombuggy proceed straight forward through the first room, home to all of the Sinister Thirteen portraits, all watching you at once. The result is immediately visceral and overwhelming, contributing both to a different presentation of the mansion, and for our discussion here, a more sinister tone. The portraits all facing you as you face a foreboding entryway you are inevitably moving toward feels like a second welcome after the stretching room, but this time from the mansion itself, rather than the Ghost Host. This is the only time you can see where you are headed in the mansion and it is used to great effect.
The next several differences in tone also focus on creating a foreboding experience through the use of darkness. The first of these is the spiders section which Tokyo has in lieu of the Escher stairways. Aside from the spider webs and spiders themselves, the area is pitch black before reaching the endless hallway scene. While the Escher stairways read as hinting at the spirits within the mansion to come, the spiders read as the mansion itself toying with you, forcing you to confront creatures that - the longer you look - appear to be moving unnaturally. Of course, this section forces you to look at them by being otherwise dark and putting the spiders quite close to the doombuggy.
The second section that shapes tone with darkness is the attic. Whereas in the stateside mansions the attic is home to chatty Constance and is lit enough for guests to see what objects are, this is not the case in Tokyo. This mansion retains the older attic scene featuring pop up heads and the beating-heart bride, pictured above. This attic only features back lighting, and almost all objects are cast in darkness, with guests only able to see the outlines of many of them. As you try to make out what you are seeing, pop up heads jump up to surprise you, accompanied by screams. The effect here is much scarier than I anticipated and much more effective than it is in the graveyard scene. Besides screams, the attic is scored by the heartbeat of the bride. So in a sense, the attic is sonically dark as well. While darkness by itself is not inherently scary, the way it is utilized to draw the guests’ eyes to certain areas and highlight figures who have ambiguous intentions toward riders certainly contributes to a more sinister tone. One more factor - the attic is an area where the Ghost Host never has a presence, and in other versions where the bride talks, one might assume she is the one who has control of your tour in the attic. That is not necessarily clear in this version, and with the tonal similarity to the earlier spider scene I would argue this is the mansion itself once again controlling the tour and attempting to scare you.
One last area that features differences in tone is the Corridor of Doors. While the lighting here in generally is weird and creepy, here the lighting is more sinister with it being blood red. There is also the addition and/or retention of effects that add to this tone. One is a unique portrait to Tokyo that is not a traditional changing portrait, but rather one who’s occupant stretches out to meet you. It caught me off guard, and is quite frankly, disturbing. The other notable effect is the monster claws/skeletal hands breaking through the top of a doorway. Something in this hallway does not like you, and does not want you to get away.
While these tonal changes do not take place in every room of the mansion, they do place the unaltered rooms and scenes into a new context. With aspects of the mansion being truly sinister, can you really trust the man asking to be let out of the coffin? Can you really sleep easy knowing a ghost has followed you home? In other mansions, Little Leota is one last invitation gag to join the after(life) party - in Tokyo these invitations seem more like a threat.
Aspects of humor still permeate this mansion, but the atmosphere and tone are heightened and the tension is at times palpable. And frankly, I absolutely love it. These aspects would elevate the mansion experience to a new level on their own, but there is also the sheer quality of Tokyo’s presentation, which I will discuss in a follow-up post.