‘Mini-theaters’ Offer Movie Fans in Japan Places to Gather

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Stunt driver Hironobu Hagimae, right, speaks before visitors at Cinema Novecento in Yokohama.

There are said to be more and more unique “mini-theaters” these days, where visitors can enjoy more than just watching movies. Visitors can chat with each other or theater staff, and also participate in various local activities.

Projectionist Katsuhiko Minowa, 59, opened Cinema Novecento, a 28-seat movie theater in a shopping district in Yokohama, in 2015. “[Since the theater is so small,] it’s like a preview room, isn’t it?” he said with a smile.

Minowa runs the place almost on his own, showing many kinds of films and holding Q&A sessions and other events almost every week.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary last year of the release of the 1971 British film “Melody” in Japan, the theater organized an event and invited Mark Lester and Tracey Hyde who starred in the film.

Get-togethers are also held at a cafe adjoining the theater, with film directors or actors invited along.

I visited the theater in March to join a viewing of an old tokusatsu special effects superhero film. Having enjoyed the movie, I and a dozen other participants sat with stunt driver Hironobu Hagimae, 71, and listened to his behind-the-scenes stories about superhero TV series “Kamen Rider” and other works. I found many of his stories of these works — which were made before I was born — interesting thanks to explanations from other participants.

University lecturer Akiko Yamashita, 59, a regular customer, said she is a fan of tokusatsu films, and has begun to organize events herself while frequenting the theater. “We enjoy watching the films together and exchanging information about them. It’s a different kind of fun from watching a film alone,” she said.

Stranger, a cafe and movie theater with 49 seats, opened in September last year in Sumida Ward, Tokyo. It also provides a place for film fans to get together. Customers are also free to visit just to eat or drink.

Tadamasa Okamura, 46, the head of the theater, selects films to be screened based on his taste. “At ordinary movie theaters, they only say ‘Welcome’ and ‘Thank you for visiting.’ But I wanted to create a place where people could enjoy films and then talk about what they liked about today’s movie, for example,” Okamura said.

Cinema Neko, a 63-seat theater in Ome, Tokyo, that opened in June 2021 has become a center of interaction not only for movie lovers, but also for locals.

It is the first movie theater to open in the city in about 50 years. Yasuhiro Kikuchi, 41, who was running a restaurant business, renovated a wooden building designated as a registered tangible cultural property and opened the theater. He said he was inspired by a customer saying, “I wish there was a movie theater in Ome like there used to be.”

Cinema Neko has become a jumping-off point for various activities, such as cleaning up a river after watching a documentary about environmental issues. “I want to cherish exchanges that begin with a movie,” Kikuchi said.

Tamaki Tsuchida, a lecturer in film theory at Waseda University, said: “In this age when movies can be easily and inexpensively streamed on video, the significance of having a movie theater in town is being questioned. The role of mini-theaters in connecting people will become more and more important in the future.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A customer, right, talks with an employee of Stranger at a cafe attached to the cinema in Sumida Ward, Tokyo.

Bearer of culture

A “mini-theater” is a small-scale movie theater that is not affiliated with a major movie company. They mainly show artistic works and old movies that are intended to be released at a single theater or only a few theaters. Theaters other than multiscreen cinema complexes can also be called mini-theaters.

Last year, the closure of mini-theaters Iwanami Hall in the Jimbocho district of Tokyo and Theatre Umeda in Osaka due to the pandemic and other factors attracted much attention. However, the number of smaller theaters is actually on the rise. According to the Japan Community Cinema Center in Tokyo, there were 136 mini-theaters nationwide in 2021, an increase of five over the past 10 years. In 2022, at least four mini-theaters opened.

Yuko Iwasaki, the center’s executive director, said: “More and more facilities are being operated as bearers and conveyers of culture. They are unlike conventional movie theaters. One of them, for instance, shows films only 10 days a month.”