A seaside picture of contentment

Free-spirited impresario brings independent movie house to Zushi to promote community

by Angela Jeffs

Sayonara Kawagoe Kinema. Hello Cinema Amigo.

Kawagoe Kinema was the fictitious star — a defunct picture house used as a community radio station — in NHK’s most recent TV morning drama.

Cinema Amigo is the real thing — a brand new independent enterprise in the seaside town of Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture, one hour from central Tokyo and less than half an hour from Yokohama.

It’s a brave venture, for how often do you hear these days of indie cinemas opening and staying open? But cofounder Gen Nagashima, who is quite literally (for the moment) living on the job, sounds as determined as he is dedicated.

“Cinema Amigo is about community,” he said one afternoon, sitting at the bar with his laptop and bringing his blog up to date. “That’s how we chose the name. It’s a friendly place that brings friends together.”

By “we” he means himself and his partners, photographer Rai Shizuno and designer Eisuke Deguchi. They have been with him from the beginning, each contributing their own particular talents and enthusiasms to the project.

Nagashima is the spokesman, in English especially. He prefers speaking in Japanese, since it’s his native language, but does well enough in his acquired tongue. Also he is only meters from the home where he grew up — one of the few remaining traditionally built Meiji Era houses in town.

His patriarchal grandfather built the house that is still occupied by his Japanese father, an architect, and his Welsh mother, a town planner.

“Zushi was where many wealthy families in the cities had besso or weekend seaside homes,” Nagashima explains. “Sadly most have been torn down in recent years for redevelopment, but my parents hold out.”

He is the youngest of six children, and grew up with the beach just across the road and a river at the bottom of his garden. Yes, he agrees, they were very lucky.

One of his sisters is married to a famed Japanese conductor. Another married an Indian, and lives with their two children in India. His oldest sister has two sons and a daughter. At age 31, he is already an uncle to five.

Watching workmen build his father’s office next door, Nagashima fantasized briefly about becoming a carpenter. But most of all he grew up wanting to play music and sing, and create a “self-sufficient lifestyle.”

He began studies at Meiji Gakuin University but dropped out after a year to put together and release a CD, under the group name Middle Stone. It sold a thousand copies, and got onto the indie chart, encouraging them to start compiling a second album. But there were differences. . . .

So off he to went to Wales for a year, to study music.

“Before I visited the first time, my image of Wales was of sheep and cows. Also that everyone spoke Welsh. That remains true around where my mother grew up, but now of course I know there’s more to it. I studied at the Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, a very lively city.”

Back in Japan, Nagashima started singing with another band, as well as booking gigs and organizing recordings. The group was doing well, but did he want to become famous, was it really what he wanted to do?

He spent three years traveling on and off — Indonesia, India, China — but spending summers home, working at the umi-no-ie (beach restaurant/bar) Blue Moon on Isshiki Beach in Hayama.

He joined an acting agency, and spent 2 1/2 months as an extra on the movie “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe.

“Can you spot me? Well, if you followed very careful instructions to find me in battle scenes . . . but not really. It was a great time though. I made many friends. . . . Some have visited and a few are still here.”

In 2004, he and colleagues opened the restaurant-bar Solaya in Hayama.

“During the two years Solaya was open, we created a really strong community, focused on music and slow life. But there were problems with neighbors about noise, and it was a struggle financially. So we decided: all good-bad things have a natural end.” He developed a career in photographic modeling with the Tokyo agency HEADS, with clients like fashion designers Takeo Kikuchi and Jurgen Lehl, and the fair trade company People Tree.

“Some weeks I may have three jobs, then there are no auditions for a week. But I like that — the freedom, the element of surprise. No, I never worry. Life is far too interesting.”

When he heard earlier in the year that the building in front of his home was about to become available for rent, he, Shizuno and Deguchi put their heads together.

They had learned from Solaya that the Zushi-Hayama area is unique in bringing city and coastal cultures together. Zushi especially is so easy, convenient, blessed with much greenery, a sandy beach and splendid views of Mount Fuji and Enoshima just down Sagami Bay.

“We talked about what Zushi and the surrounding area lacked. It was the networking group Roots Culture that suggested a cinema. Mainstream media is so dull these days. Many people are interested in independent film.”

Having done their research, the team has created a warm and friendly space, with an office and studio on the second floor, and downstairs a 30-seat cinema and an open area that includes a bar, seating for lunch, a shop that sells plants and a variety of locally produced arts and crafts.

“A different chef cooks lunch each day,” he explains. “Monday is Asian fusion, Tuesday’s curry incorporates wild plants from around here, Wednesday offers a genmai (brown rice) plate and Indian recipes . . . and so on. Saturday focuses on organic pork. We’re finding our way, slowly.”

As to the movies, which are rented from distributors in digital format and shown in evenings only, it was agreed that any selected film — feature or documentary — would have a message, be challenging and lift people’s spirits.

“No horror. Nothing too depressing. Recently we focused on nuclear issues in and around Japan. For balance, we showed Jack Black’s ‘Be Kind Rewind,’ then a French film about food and eating, followed by two Japanese films.”

Nagashima is all too aware that it will take time to build up a reputation and regular customer base. But with a strong desire to draw the community together, he’s prepared to put in the time and effort required to put Cinema Amigo on the map. “There are lots of people around here who, having lived and traveled abroad, prefer to get together with friends and talk or make music rather than sit around at home watching TV.

“In five years’ time, I want the place to be stable and self-sufficient. I want it to function well, even without me. The people involved will always be changing, in flux, but that’s healthy.”

Right now he’s sleeping on a sofa. “I’ve given my space upstairs to a Japanese dancer visiting from New York for three weeks. Luckily I’m flexible.”

Cinema Amigo: 1-5-14 Shinjuku, Zushi, Kanagawa Pref. Phone: (046) 873-5643. URL: cinema-amigo.com. Blog: cinema-amigo.jugem.jp