Last year’s closures of Iwanami Hall in Tokyo’s Jimbocho district and Theatre Umeda in Osaka generated much ado. The iconic mini- theaters were shut down amid pandemic and other challenges. Yet the number of mini-theaters — independent, small theaters where artistic works and old movies are screened — 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 decade. In 2022, at least four mini-theaters opened their doors.
These spaces offer more than film. They are places where visitors can socialize and take part in various local events.
“More and more mini-theaters are being operated as bearers and conveyors of culture,” said Yuko Iwasaki, the center’s executive director. “They are unlike conventional movie theaters. One of them, for instance, shows films only 10 days a month.”
In 2015, projectionist Katsuhiko Minowa, 59, opened Cinema Novecento, a 28-seat movie theater in a Yokohama shopping district. Minowa runs the place with little help, screening a broad range of films and holding Q&A sessions and other events nearly every week.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release in Japan of the 1971 British film “Melody,” for instance, Minowa organized an event last year and invited stars Mark Lester and Tracey Hyde to attend.
Get-togethers are also held at a cafe adjoining the theater, with film directors or actors invited along.
In March, the theater showed an old tokusatsu, a live-action special effects superhero film. A dozen members of the audience sat with stunt driver Hironobu Hagimae, 71, and listened to his behind-the-scenes stories about superhero TV series “Kamen Rider.”
University lecturer Akiko Yamashita, 59, a regular theatergoer, said she is a fan of tokusatsu films and has begun to organize events herself. “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 in Tokyo’s Sumida ward.
Tadamasa Okamura, 46, manager of the theater, selects films based on his own 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,” he said.
Cinema Neko, a 63-seat theater in Ome, Tokyo, which opened its doors in June 2021, has become a social hub for the local community. It is the first movie theater to open in the city in about 50 years.
Restaurant operator Yasuhiro Kikuchi, 41, renovated a wooden building designated as a registered tangible cultural property and opened the theater. He said he was inspired by a customer longing for a theater in Ome.
The theater has become a jumping-off point for various activities, such as a river cleanup inspired by a documentary about environmental issues that he screened.
Tamaki Tsuchida, a lecturer in film theory at Waseda University, said these theaters have a special function in their communities.
“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,” he said. But “the role of mini-theaters in connecting people will become more and more important in the future.”
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