Film

The race to save Japan's independent cinemas

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

The second-largest movie market in Asia, Japan had 3,583 cinema screens at the end of 2019, a slight increase on the year before, while the number of domestic film releases rose last year to 689, a new record. This growth has come to a shuddering halt.

As new infections of COVID-19 emerged across the country last month, theater owners tried limiting seating options and other measures to protect patrons. While not threatened with the sort of government-mandated shutdown that closed all of China’s cinemas in January — Japanese law would not allow it — they had good reason to worry that worse was to come.

On April 7, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka and five other prefectures, backed by calls from Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike for people to stay home for all but essential activities. Movie-going was not among them.

Since then, nearly 1,500 screens have gone dark in the seven targeted areas. The nation’s largest chain, Toho Cinemas, led the way by announcing on the day of Abe’s declaration that it was closing all 695 of its screens. Its shutdown is scheduled to last until May 6.

One reason for the sudden closures is that defying official pleas for “self-restraint” would be difficult even for Toho, which is Japan’s biggest film distributor and exhibitor, let alone smaller theater operators. Being the only non-conforming nail invites the hammer of societal and government censure.

Another reason is that, despite attempts by theaters to reassure nervous patrons, the box office went into a tailspin in early April. According to figures compiled by eiga.com, the total box office revenue of the 10 highest-earning films for the April 4-5 weekend was down 90 percent compared with the same period the year before.

So-called mini-shiatā (mini-theaters) — art houses that support Japan’s large independent film sector — suffered even more precipitous drops. Takashi Asai, an industry veteran who operates the two-screen Uplink theater in Shibuya, told the Cinema Today website that, since his monthly earnings “were trending to zero,” he was struggling to pay expenses like rent and staff compensation. He has since closed Uplink while continuing to offer films on a streaming site. Other mini-theaters across the country have followed suit and closed.

Concerned about the plight of such theaters, some supporters have launched initiatives aimed at helping them survive the current crisis. One, the #SaveTheCinema (Minishiata o Sukue!) petition drive, started April 6.

“Films are not complete until they are seen by people,” its organizers said in a statement. “In that sense, theaters are a bridge between films and fans. They stand at the frontline of this form of expression called films. We want to protect that.”

Since then, a who’s who of the Japanese film industry has voiced support for the drive, including directors Hirokazu Kore-eda and Shinya Tsukamoto, and actors Arata Iura and Akira Emoto. The object is to call on the government to compensate theater owners for lost box-office revenues.

Another campaign going around is Mini-Theater Aid, a crowdfunding initiative launched by directors Koji Fukada and Ryusuke Hamaguchi on the Motion Gallery website. Yet another is Save Our Local Cinemas, a project by 13 theaters in the Kansai region aimed at selling graphic T-shirts. The money raised will go to project participants.

If you want to keep watching new Japanese films beyond Toho’s multiplex fare, check out these campaigns to save Japan’s independent cinemas. If they close their doors for good, some of Japan’s best filmmakers may have no alternative for their work but streaming sites — or the storeroom.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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