Monday, July 9, 2018

A Tale of Two Towers: The Taller We Stand, The Nearer The Stars


          "Anyone who visits American Waterfront will soon find their gaze irresistibly drawn to the unique form of the lofty Hotel Hightower. The building's unusual design and extraordinary proportions were symbols of the wealth and power of its notorious creator, antiquities collector Harrison Hightower III, and indeed the stories of the man and the hotel are inextricably linked..."

                                                                 -  Press Release, 2006

          Harrison Hightower III is a bad man. From the moment we lay eyes on the Tokyo version of the Tower of Terror from the streets of American Waterfront, we know this to be true. The twisted Gothic monstrosity that is the Hightower Hotel just oozes an evil aura from its towers and spires. Yet not a word has been said to us. We haven't even entered the queue yet, and the Tokyo Tower is already wielding its greatest weapon: visual storytelling.  

          While visual storytelling is used in the other Towers, often to create little vignettes that contribute to ambiance, in Tokyo it is in full force, blending experiential and narrative storytelling into one powerful narrative centered around one man: Harrison Hightower III. In doing so, the visuals here give the Tokyo Tower something the others lack - a focal point. No matter where we are in this attraction, Harrison Hightower is always in focus, and as such, the story of the Tokyo Tower deepens considerably. The tale of the man and the tale of the tower are - as noted above - inextricably linked.

           The story is so vast, in fact, that it begins outside the queue. Here newspapers are posted describing the last expedition of ol' Harry in 1899 and the dark nature of his adventures along the Congo River - alluding to, among other things, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In some other papers not pictured, we also learn about the efforts of the New York Preservation Society (NYPS) to both offer tours of the building and solve the mystery of Hightower's disappearance. Please note that these newspapers tell us very little overall, but are enough to start two distinct stories - Hightower's story, and ours. We don't learn a whole lot about Hightower here except that he was rich and adventurous (his face is a tad too obscured to fully see), but we do now have an understanding of our role. We aren't just going to explore the tower because we stumbled upon it randomly - we're guests on a NYPS tour. 

           Once in the queue, we once again find ourselves among the hotel gardens, seeing a few signs that the building has fallen on hard times, such as a statue that is missing some limbs, before entering the lobby and being immediately greeted by this portrait lording over us:


          At last we're able to put a face to the name, and even though the portrait itself doesn't speak, the environment around it does. The portrait is placed high on the mantle, making it so Hightower gazes down upon us, a quizzical look on his face, as if saying "You rabble dare to enter my hotel?" To say this man has an ego is an understatement. His feelings toward himself are etched into the stonework of the hotel outside - The Taller We Stand, The Nearer the Stars. With the Hightower Hotel looming over everything else in the area - nay, the park - Hightower must think himself a god. 

Hightower is the type of guy to get a portrait with an archaeological discovery, turn that discovery into a fireplace in his hotel, then hang that portrait on that fireplace

          The build of the fireplace also furthers our own story with its strange and exotic architecture. Even though we are on a tour here, we are also explorers, strangers in a strange land. What is this place, really? A hotel? A museum, perhaps, or a tomb? The utterly bizarre display calls us to investigate our surroundings further and unlock more long dormant secrets. As much as the fireplace is a key story marker, it also establishes a motif of the past - a past that is somehow wrong in a way we can't quite place. On our way through the lobby, we find more evidence of Hightower's eccentricities and failings; magnificent architecture and directories of the hotel showcase the former; the latter is narrated by the murals above. Each work depicts Hightower pillaging priceless artifacts from lands and temples full of danger, though (in a fitting twist) his proud posture makes him blind to the perils behind him. The repetition of these motifs is key, as this is where story and ambiance begin to converge. Below, a few examples of the murals:

While sometimes Hightower upsets the natives...

...he also disturbs idols (note the exaggerated frowns)...

...and - occasionally - even gods. 

          In a way, these depictions of Hightower's heroism are almost funny. There's a pseudo-optimistic bent to his constant daring escapes, and the depiction of each scenario borders on the absurd. In a way, Hightower here nearly embodies an Indiana Jones-esque pulp hero, yet is held back from this status by the destruction left in his wake. Remember, Hightower must have commissioned these paintings, and felt fine with depicting misery occurring as a direct results of his actions. There's a massive disconnect in his brain somewhere if he thinks of himself as a hero rather than merely playing one. 

          We have been given an inordinate amount of information up to this point, though not a word has been spoken. Had we skipped the newspaper outside, we still would understand that Hightower is the very prideful owner of the hotel, and is not afraid to get his hands dirty. We haven't even entered the pre-show area and already have enough information to judge his character. If the audience has missed all of the evidence up to this point, the doors to the pre-show area features an unmissable portrait of Hightower that reiterates much of this information and highlights his obsession with the occult:

Clearly this man's story will have a happy ending. 

          Before we leave the lobby, there's one more item of interest - the mood. Ambiance fills the lobby area with mystery and suspense. We have a setup, but nothing past that yet. The Tokyo Tower has a similar setup to its sister attractions, though in a departure, there is little use of cobwebs or other signs of age. Rather, the hotel is immaculately kept and clean, but the cleanliness paradoxically only adds to its inherent creepiness. The only sight that truly betrays an aura of foreboding is the ruined elevator at the back of the lobby, a sign of things to come. 

          The Hightower plot line has all the elements of a mystery, but we've already been given all the clues we need to determine what happened in the first room alone. Something got back at this man in revenge for his lifetime of looting and sinfulness. In the next rooms, the first official bit of pre-show, these "somethings" will go from lurking in the shadows to the very forefront of the attraction. 

           As we enter the next room, proceeding deeper into the bowels of the hotel, we are greeted by pictures of Hightower's artifacts - some of which we saw previously in the lobby's murals - lining the walls. These photos include some objects in their original locales, but many feature objects being shipped back to Hightower's place of residence. 

          If we are paying attention, these photos should be a warning to us going forward. While paintings naturally place their subjects at least partially in the realm of fiction, photographs are documentation of the real world. By replacing the paintings and murals of the previous room with the photographs of this one, we are being brought closer to danger even as we begin to solve the mysteries of the Hightower Hotel. Unfortunately, we don't have much time to scan the photographs for clues before our NYPS tour guide begins to spiel, recounting Hightower's mysterious disappearance after bringing home his latest discovery - Shiriki Utundu. This is not really new information, but it does keep the link between the tower and the man at the forefront of our minds. 

Moving along...

          We intrude deeper still what must be the heart of the hotel: Hightower's private office. For a man obsessed with his own success, the office is surprisingly low-key. Yes, there are some artifacts scattered around and a stained glass window featuring the man himself, but its nowhere near as glitzy as the hotel lobby. This normality in and of itself is interesting as it adds a sense of realism to both the man and his hotel, but we only get to admire it briefly before our NYPS guide begins to play a phonograph which reveals to us the last recorded words of Harrison Hightower III. A journalist asks him if he believes the Shiriki Utundu idol - which, incidentally, is in this office with us - is cursed, but Hightower dismisses the question with a laugh. 
           Suddenly the room goes dark, and the stained glass window changes, creating an image of a terrified Hightower holding the idol. He reveals to us what really happened that night, the way the idol cursed him and his fateful elevator drop of doom. He warns us to beware of Shiriki Utundu, but as we turn to look at the idol in the room with us, he grins and cackles maniacally, before disappearing in a flash. The room returns to normal, but only just. Shiriki is missing, and a secret passage has opened up on the far wall. 

          While a lot of Hightower's plot happens in this room and is fairly easy to interpret, there is much more happening than appears at first glance. In our story, this room is the apex of our investigation, where we finally discover the truth. It is the first supernatural interruption of our tour. More than anything else, however, this office is where the maliciousness of the hotel and its owner is revealed. If Hightower's office is the heart of the hotel - where it lived and breathed and functioned - than Shiriki Utundu is the corruption that has seized it and taken control. 

          It is easy to see Shiriki Utundu as an external force, sweeping in on an unsuspecting man to wreak havoc and corrupt his very soul. It is true that Shiriki is a corruptive force, but it is also true that he is an honest one. As an audience, we aren't terribly surprised when an idol comes to life and curses Hightower because Hightower's selfishness, ego, and corruption have been on display from the moment we first saw his tower in the distance. If anything, Shiriki is the sub-text of the previous rooms made text (please note that Shiriki is literally a background object - like the paintings and photos we have seen thus far - until he comes to life). As a result, his introduction and inclusion feel very natural to the story we are being told, as well as a natural extension of Hightower's character arc. 

           As we enter the secret passage out of the office, we step into a warehouse-like area of the hotel that seems like it should be off limits to us. If Hightower the man and Hightower the hotel are the same, then this room is nothing more than Hightower's shame, invisible to us until his sins became truly apparent in his office. How many artifacts has he stolen over the years? Crates and cabinets along the walls give the impression that there's more than we could even hope to count. In truth, even one would be too many, for we now know that many if not all of the artifacts Hightower claimed must have been supernatural like Shiriki Utundu, and their removal might have ruined the societies and people they came from. In this light, these ruins of past civilizations and societies are more than just creepy scenery; they're testaments to the megalomania, greed, and immorality of not just Harrison Hightower, but of society at large. For as we scan the rows of crates, we discover that Hightower did not collect his artifacts alone. Real world explorers and adventurers are listed on those crates, and if they're in cahoots with Hightower, then their values deserve some investigating as well. 

Howard Carter: Famous Egyptologist, or man of dubious intentions? (Definitely Famous Egyptologist)
          While it is easy to pass such references off as set dressing, the implication of real historical figures in Hightower's work is important, because it makes it clear that Hightower's failings are not just his - they can be ours as well. This point is driven home by the eyes of Shiriki Utundu - the manifestation of Hightower's inner evil - watching and following us throughout the room. 

He's watching you...
          While Hightower's office was the apex of his story, it is here, in this chamber full of curses and buried secrets, that our own story reaches its climax. Here is where Hightower's story becomes an incredibly human story - our story. Sure, Hightower is a cartoonish caricature of an 1890s robber baron, but his failings are unbearably human. We know that his downfall didn't come from a curse, but from his inner greed and selfishness, his lack of care for other's beliefs and well-being. We have to avoid these traits and learn to be better than him if we are to avoid the same fate. 

         Of course, after any good story's climax, you'll have your falling action. Suffice it to say that the Tokyo Tower of Terror provides this in spades. 

          It may seem odd that both our story and that of Harrison Hightower are nearly complete before we even board the ride itself, but narratively this is actually a wonderful approach, even if it should be used sparingly. By utilizing this approach, the ride portion itself becomes a warning to us. Be better, it says. Stand tall, or meet your (quite literal) downfall. Harrison Hightower's voice-over in the ride portion basically says as much. This isn't some strange warning to not go to the "dark side of Hollywood", but simply to be a better person. There is no blame on the guest for entering the ride, no chastising their decisions. There is instead a look to the future - one that is, paradoxically, somewhat hopeful. The tale of Harrison Hightower could have simply been "The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall" (pun intended), and while it is this to some degree, when paired with our own simultaneous story, his becomes an uplifting one. Our story is not that we will inevitably fall prey to our baser instincts, but that we can learn from our past. 

           Consider this: the Tower of Terror's home "land" of American Waterfront is generally set around the 1910s and 1920s. Yet Harrison Hightower's elevator fall of doom was intentionally set on December 31st, 1899. His fall is set not only in our own past, but the past of the land as well - a land, I might add, that is thriving and alive. Harrison Hightower, Shiriki Utundu, and the whole of the Hightower Hotel, with all their ego, greed, and selfishness, are relics of the past. Their story may be "The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall", but ours? Our story of leaving their failings in the past and heading out to build a great big beautiful tomorrow? Why it's written right on the building.

Tokyo Tower of Terror Resources

I've investigated the Tokyo Tower of Terror more times than I can count at this point, and there's always something there to draw me back in. If you're interested in learning more, I've written a few smaller articles on my tumblr (see the tab up top). For even more, I recommend the following resources as a starting point.

Dejiki - For a fantastic visual tour of the tower. 

YouTube - Tower of Terror w/ Subtitles 

Theme Park Tourist - Intriguing backstory on the making of the ride

 And as always, feel free to start a discussion in the comments below!

Title Photo Source