Japanese independent cinemas take advantage of pandemic leave to make films

Many small cinemas in Japan, forced to close or reduce their hours due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have taken advantage of the downtime to embark on making their own films.

The films add to the boom in independent films in Japan, which has doubled over the past 15 years, with many showing in smaller theaters across the country.

For many independent cinema operators, the lack of activity during the pandemic risked putting them in dire straits, but it also led to a collaboration of operators and a renewed appreciation of the value of theaters as hubs. cultural events that support the diversity of film screenings.

Kazuhiro Sugawara, who runs Cinema Iris, a small theater in Hakodate, Hokkaido, produced “The Sound of Grass”, directed by Hisashi Saito.

But filming ended up being delayed by the pandemic, which also forced the theater to temporarily close.

“When the city became calm like a ghost town, I thought I really felt compelled to make the movie,” Sugawara recalls.

He was able to make the movie with the support of locals, a crowdfunding campaign called Mini-Theater Aid and other efforts to help cinemas.

Unlike past efforts produced in the small film community, which tended to be made to promote the charms of local areas, the new generation of films, while showcasing local talent and using a community network, is of higher quality. and strives for commercial success.

“The Sound of Grass,” produced to celebrate Cinema Iris’ 25th anniversary, features various locations in Hakodate, as the protagonist, played by Masahiro Higashide, runs along the seafront, through streets and other parts of the city, bathed in soft light.

The film, released on October 8, is the fifth project in a series of films produced by Cinema Iris based on the novels of Yasushi Sato, a native of Hakodate who died prematurely in 1990, committing suicide.

Sugawara’s motivation for getting involved in the film was simple.

“We wanted to make films that we wanted to show,” the director said.

Sugawara has previously teamed up with promising directors to produce films that have received critical acclaim at film festivals, starting with the 2010 film “Sketches of Kaitan City”, directed by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri.

To produce the film, Sugawara asked moviegoers and local businesses to cooperate as he launched a fundraiser to raise around 50 million yen ($ 437,700).

Locals also participated by recruiting extras and arranging meals and cars.

The film was screened in local theaters across Japan, helping it achieve commercial success, which led to successive films in the series.


Other independent cinemas have also ventured into cinema.

Jack & Betty Cinemas in Yokohama, to celebrate its 30th anniversary, produced “Somebody’s Flowers”.

The cinema has chosen Yusuke Okuda, a native of Yokohama, to lead the project, which is expected to open in theaters in December before being shown in other regions from January.

The film was also screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival, which opened at the end of October.

Long-established arthouse cinemas in Japan’s three major cities – Eurospace in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, Nagoya Cinematheque in Nagoya and Cinenouveau in Osaka – have also teamed up to produce a film.

Eleven directors associated with the Motomachi Eigakan Theater in Kobe also created an omnibus film to celebrate its 10th anniversary last year.

The film “Kyou, Eigakan ni Ikanai? (Do you want to go to the movies today?), Will open from November in the Keihanshin region, which includes Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe.

A wide variety of works have been brought together for the project, which was developed on the initiative of director Kaori Oda, known for the movie “Cenote”.

Oda’s first feature film was screened in theaters.

“It’s a place where I can feel the reactions of the audience. I owe a lot to this theater, so I hope it survives for a long time,” she said.

Yuko Iwasaki is the general manager of the Japan Community Cinema Center, which consists of small cinemas and other organizations.

Commenting on films produced by small theaters, she said: “Independent cinemas cherish films and filmmakers closely associated with their communities, while many of their films are unique and distinctive enough to clearly depart from ‘locally made films’. and locally oriented “which reflect promotional intentions.

The effect of digitization in facilitating film making has also motivated cinema operators to make films, Iwasaki also pointed out.

“Small cinemas are questioning their own future and their relationship with audiences and filmmakers,” added Iwasaki. “I think there will be more films that can only be made by small cinemas.”

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