Former Tokyo cinema town opens 1st movie theater in 50 years

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yasuhiro Kikuchi, right, and Minoru Kubo stand in the screening room of Cinema Neko.

A local movie theater in Ome, Tokyo, the city’s first in 50 years, opened its doors on June 4 after the easing of government requests for the closure of theaters and museums in the face of the coronavirus crisis.

Cinema Neko, was built in the renovated former Tokyo metropolitan textile experiment station, a nationally registered tangible cultural property in the Nishiwake area of Ome, the city in western Tokyo once known as a bustling cinema town.

Inspiring signs

Local restaurateur Yasuhiro Kikuchi, 39, opened Cinema Neko after getting the idea through conversations with some of his customers. Kikuchi, once an aspiring actor, worked part-time at a restaurant after graduating from high school while he pursued his dream. Unable to break into the acting world, however, he has been running a yakitori (grilled skewered chicken) restaurant in the city for the past 10 years.

Some of his customers were curious about the fact that movie billboards decorated a shopping area near JR Ome Station as part of the city’s revitalization efforts, but there was no movie theater.

Unaware of Ome’s cinematic past, Kikuchi researched the city’s history and found that there were three movie theaters near the station in the 1950s and ’60s that drew crowds from all over. The signs advertising the movies created by late local sign painter Bankan Kubo, born Noboru Kubo, have been adding color to the area since 1994.

Kikuchi thought that bringing a movie theater back to the area would be appreciated by the elderly who frequented cinemas in their youth and fans wanting to see movies on the big screen.

He brought his idea to the attention of someone involved in a local revitalization company funded partly by the city government to deal with shop vacancies. They introduced him to the former metropolitan textile experiment station managed by the Ome textile industry cooperative. The single-story, slate-clad, Western-style wooden building boasted a certain warmth and a comfortable “Showa retro” feel, referring to the Showa era that spanned 1926 to 1989.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Cinema Neko is housed in an old wooden building that retains a retro feel in Ome, western Tokyo.

Collaborative effort

Kikuchi also approached Minoru Kubo, the 65-year-old chairman of Toei-kai, a local shopping district association of which the Ome textile industry cooperative is a member, with his idea of building a movie theater.

Kubo, who knew of Ome’s heyday as a cinema town, pledged his support, saying, “It would be great if we could get Ome culture out to the masses and revitalize the shopping district.”

The project to revive the movie theater, which began in the winter of 2018, cost about ¥100 million, a portion of which was covered by a government subsidy jointly applied for by Toei-kai and Kikuchi. About ¥5.4 million was also raised through crowdfunding. Kikuchi borrowed the rest from financial institutions.

The ceiling housing the screening room was removed to create a sense of openness, and 63 spacious seats manufactured by a French specialty company were installed. The theater also has a cafe, aiming to create a space where people can enjoy more than just the movies.

Pandemic postponement

Although the cinema’s opening was originally scheduled for May 2, it was postponed due to the third coronavirus state of emergency declared in late April.

“We acted in accordance with the requests to refrain from opening, but we already had employees and it would have been a fatal blow to our business if we couldn’t open the store for a prolonged period,” Kikuchi said. “It was such a relief to be able to open.”

He added: “We will readjust our schedule and cooperate with the requests for shortened business hours. The cinema’s ventilation system is also in place, so I hope that our customers will come without any worries.”

The theater’s cafe opened in late May ahead of the start of screenings. Visitors came to take a look at the interiors made from the building’s old materials.

The cinema’s opening screening was Studio Ghibli’s 2002 animated film “The Cat Returns,” in honor of the theater’s name. Cinema Neko plans to screen about 10 films every month.

“I think this will be the only movie theater in Tokyo constructed out of wood,” Kikuchi said. “Tachikawa is the only city in the surrounding area with a small independent theater, so Cinema Neko has a wide area to work with. If the films we show are good, customers will come even from Tokyo’s 23 wards and Saitama Prefecture.”

Cinema Neko’s full screening schedule is available on its website.