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It was late March when filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda realized he needed a Plan B. His latest documentary, “Zero,” had won an Ecumenical Prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival and was due to open in Japanese cinemas in just over a month. But, in the age of coronavirus, it only takes days for the best-laid plans to unravel.

Soda and his wife, producer Kiyoko Kashiwagi, had arrived in Tokyo from their home in New York for a promotional tour on March 25. A day later, Japan started restricting entry to all travelers from the United States.

While New York was on full lockdown, Tokyo had managed to preserve a fragile semblance of normality — but the strain was beginning to show. Even before the government declared a state of emergency in April, which included a request for movie theaters to close, box-office takings had nosedived.

Independent cinemas, known in Japan as minishiatā (“mini-theaters”), reported screenings for which nobody turned up. One theater in Nagoya went a whole day without seeing any customers.

“My natural instinct was to postpone the release — for a year or two, even,” Soda says. It’s the option that every other distributor seems to have taken, shunting films originally scheduled for a spring release to later in the year, or some hazy point in the more distant future.

However, when Soda proposed this to his Japanese distributor, Tofoo, it cautioned that there may not be any theaters left by then.

“I realized that if I want to protect myself, I need to protect everybody in the ecosystem of cinema,” he says, “which means the theater, distributor, producers and also the audience.”

After a meeting with the owner of Tokyo’s Theatre Image Forum, a key venue in the film’s nationwide rollout, Tofoo staff started contacting other cinemas that had been planning to screen “Zero.” A week later, they unveiled a new initiative, Temporary Cinema, which takes the framework of the independent theater circuit and shifts it online.

Each cinema has its own sales page, on which viewers can pay to watch movies on-demand during a limited release period (the movies themselves are hosted on Vimeo, long the video platform of choice for independent filmmakers). At ¥1,800 per rental, it costs the same as a theater ticket, and proceeds are split equally between the distributor and exhibitor.

It’s an alternative to the crowdfunding campaigns that have sprung up over the past month or so. Soda’s name is listed among the many filmmakers backing Mini Theater Aid, which recently raised more than ¥275 million (by the time of writing) to support independent cinemas. While acknowledging this is an “amazing” result, Soda worries whether such efforts are sustainable.

“We have to think about a situation in which this crisis will be prolonged for a year or two,” he says. “In that case, we have to kind of (preserve) this real economy of cinema, where audiences are the ultimate supporters of the whole ecosystem. The Temporary Cinema initiative is one way — probably almost the only way — to keep it going like that.”

Temporary Cinema launched on April 25 with 47 cinemas signed up. The titles on offer so far include films that had their theatrical runs cut short, though “Zero” was the first to go straight to streaming.

Soda admits it was a painful choice.

“I always make films to be watched in a movie theater; that’s my prime goal and motivation. If I don’t have that, I don’t know if I want to make films,” the filmmaker says. “Watching movies in a movie theater is almost like a ritual: to confirm that we are social animals, to feel that we are connected. So for me to (choose) to release it online was a pretty tough decision. But at the same time, it is a decision for us to be able to go back to the movie theaters.”

The outpouring of support for the Mini Theater Aid campaign is testament to the enduring appeal of Japan’s independent cinemas. They may no longer enjoy the cultural clout they had in the 1990s, but they have continued to survive in the margins, offering a much-needed alternative to the monolithic fare served at multiplex chains.

Soda concedes that most people will probably watch his films in other formats — on DVD, TV or online — but he sees something unique in the theatrical experience.

“There is a reason why ‘cinema’ also means movie theaters,” he says. “It’s synonymous, right? If cinema is not in movie theaters, it’s something else.”

“Zero” returns to the scene of Soda’s 2009 sophomore feature, “Mental,” which focused on an outpatient mental health clinic in Okayama. The clinic’s founder, Dr. Masatomo Yamamoto, was a pioneer in the world of Japanese psychiatry, and led a push to unlock mental hospitals in the 1960s.

When Soda heard that Yamamoto was set to retire just shy of his 82nd birthday, he and Kashiwagi “quickly decided to do a sequel.” He had already planned a trip to Japan at the same time to promote his 2018 film “Inland Sea,” which made the logistics easier.

“That’s the beauty of it,” he says, describing how his “observational films” come into being. “If I try to go out and get it, it’s almost impossible. But when something is kind of coming to you, all I do is just receive it and keep going with the flow.”

All for one: Kazuhiro Soda hopes the streaming model used for his new film could help keep Japan's independent cinemas afloat. | COURTESY OF TOFOO
All for one: Kazuhiro Soda hopes the streaming model used for his new film could help keep Japan’s independent cinemas afloat. | COURTESY OF TOFOO

This is typical of Soda’s approach. Taking inspiration from the great American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, he strips away the artifice of much nonfiction filmmaking, using the lightest of touches to glean deeper truths.

Soda’s website lists “10 Commandments,” an ascetic manifesto that eschews not just voiceovers and music, but also any kind of advance preparation. This philosophy was borne out of his frustrations during his previous job, directing documentaries for NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster.

He says it took him a while to unlearn some of the habits he’d acquired during his TV days.

“When I was making ‘Mental,’ I was always thinking: I need more people, I need more characters or more disturbing stories,” he says with a laugh. “It’s terrible, but I had those kinds of thoughts all the time.”

In his subsequent films, Soda has managed to take an increasingly hands-off approach. Most feature-length documentaries are edited from hundreds of hours’ worth of footage, but for “Zero,” he amassed just 37 hours, shot over the space of seven days.

Whereas “Mental” focused on the clinic’s patients, “Zero” is more interested in Yamamoto and his wife, Yoshiko, who is succumbing to the effects of dementia. That may sound depressing, yet the film isn’t: It’s an affirmation of how our humanity can endure, even as everything else seems to be falling apart.

The circumstances of its release may not be ideal, but it couldn’t have been better timed.

“It’s about how we can be together, and how we can coexist,” Soda says. “How we can care for each other, especially in difficult situations — especially when we face death, or saying goodbye to somebody else, somebody you love. So, yeah, this is actually a perfect film to watch right now.”

“Zero” is currently streaming on Temporary Cinema. For details, visit www.temporary-cinema.jp. Viewers outside Japan can rent Kazuhiro Soda’s earlier films at www.kazuhirosoda.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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