Cinemas have faced such existential threats since at least the 1950s, when television ownership began to spread rapidly across the developed world. Despite their apparent vulnerability to various disruptive developments—home video, streaming, COVID-19—many, if not most, have found ways to carry on. In some cases, this is due to the dedication of small groups of supporters or even the efforts of individuals such as Shuji Tamura, who himself runs the century-old Motomiya Cinema in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture.
You can see Tamura in action My theater, the short five-minute documentary above. “Japanese director Kazuya Ashizawa’s charming observational portrait captures Tamura as he screens old films for students and cinephiles and conducts behind-the-scenes theater tours,” says Aeon. Included in these tours is a close-up look at the purely analog film projector, the operation of which Tamura, who was 81 at the time of filming, has retained all the know-how. Although he officially closed the theater in the 1960s, he seems to have kept up his stringing skills with proper screenings for small and large tour groups.
Although such a portrait was cheerful, it could hardly avoid an elegiac undertone. Already suffering from the depopulation that has affected many regions of Japan, Fukushima was also badly affected by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the associated nuclear disaster. In 2020, a year after Ashizawa shot himself My theaterthe typhoon “caused the Abukumagawa River and its tributaries to flood,” he said Asahi Shimbun‘s Shoko Rikimaru writes. “Downtown Motomiya was flooded, seven people died and more than 2,000 houses and buildings were damaged.” Both Tamura’s theater and his house were flooded, and “half of the 400 film cans on the shelves on the first floor of his house were covered in muddy water”.
In response, help came from near and far. “A manufacturer in Kanagawa Prefecture sent 10 boxes of film cans to the cinema, while a cinema in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture supplied a film editing machine. About 30 people associated with the film industry in Tokyo showed up at the theater to help clean and dry the film. This effort resulted in the restoration of about 100 films. Unfortunately, Tamura’s planned reopening happened to coincide with the spread of the coronavirus across Japan, leading to its indefinite postponement. But now that Japan has reopened to international tourism, perhaps Motomiya Movie Theater can become a destination not only for domestic visitors but also for foreign visitors. He let himself be charmed My theaterwho wouldn’t want to take a road trip?
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based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.