How One Man Keeps Showing Films in a Japanese Cinema That Closed 58 Years Ago: A Moving, Short Documentary

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?

via Aeon

Relat­ed con­tent:

Why Japan Has the Old­est Busi­ness­es in the World?: Hōshi, a 1300-Year-Old Hotel, Offers Clues

A Med­i­ta­tive Look at a Japan­ese Artisan’s Quest to Save the Bril­liant, For­got­ten Col­ors of Japan’s Past

Dis­cov­er the Ghost Towns of Japan: Where Scare­crows Replace Peo­ple, and a Man Lives in an Aban­doned Ele­men­tary School Gym

The Sto­ry of Akiko Takaku­ra, One of the Last Sur­vivors of the Hiroshi­ma Bomb­ing, Told in a Short Ani­mat­ed Doc­u­men­tary

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.

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