Since at least the nineteen-fifties, when television ownership began spreading rapidly across the developed world, movie theaters have been laboring under one kind of existential threat or another. Yet despite their apparent vulnerability to a variety of disruptive developments — home video, streaming, COVID-19 — many, if not most, of them have found ways to soldier on. In some cases this owes to the dedication of small groups of supporters, or even to the efforts of individuals like Shuji Tamura, who operates the century-old Motomiya Movie Theater in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture single-handedly.
You can see Tamura in action in My Theater, the five-minute documentary short above. “The Japanese director Kazuya Ashizawa’s charming observational portrait captures Tamura as he screens old movies for an audience of students and cinephiles, and gives behind-the-scenes tours of the cinema,” says Aeon. Those tours include an up-close look at the thoroughly analog film projector of whose operation Tamura, 81 years old at the time of filming, has retained all the know-how. Though he officially closed the theater in the nineteen-sixties, it seems he keeps his threading skills sharp by holding screenings for tour groups young and old.
Though lighthearted, a portrait like this could hardly avoid an elegiac undertone. Already suffering from the depopulation that has afflicted many regions of Japan, Fukushima was also badly afflicted by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and their associated nuclear disaster. In 2020, the year after Ashizawa shot My Theater, a typhoon “caused the Abukumagawa river and its tributaries to flood,” as the Asahi Shimbun‘s Shoko Rikimaru writes. “The Motomiya city center was inundated, seven people died, and more than 2,000 houses and buildings were damaged.” Both Tamura’s theater and his home were flooded, and “half of the 400 film cans on shelves on the first floor of his house were drenched in muddy water.”
In response, help came from near and far. “A manufacturer in Kanagawa Prefecture sent 10 boxes of film cans to the theater, while a movie theater in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, delivered a film-editing machine. About 30 people affiliated with the film industry in Tokyo showed up at the theater to help clean and dry the film. The effort led to the restoration of about 100 films.” Alas, Tamura’s planned re-opening event happened to coincide with the spread of the coronavirus across Japan, resulting in its indefinite postponement. But now that Japan has re-opened for international tourism, perhaps the Motomiya Movie Theater can become a destination for not just domestic visitors but foreign ones as well. Having been charmed by My Theater, who wouldn’t want to make the trip?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.