Japanese Filmmakers Launch Campaigns to Save Tokyo's Indie Cinemas

Hirokazu Kore-eda Cannes 2018 - Getty - H 2018
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Nearly all of Japan's movie screens have gone dark in response to the coronavirus crisis, imperiling the indie theaters that are the lifeblood of the country's art house scene.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe belatedly declared a national emergency in Japan on Thursday, sending nearly all of the country's cinemas that were still operating into shutdown.

Japan is the world's third-largest theatrical film market, and a prolonged lockdown there will be a significant contributor to the global box office crash caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Japanese law doesn't provide a mechanism for forcing business closures or preventing people from going out — Abe's declaration amounts to just a strong urging — but much of Japan's populace has already been avoiding crowded spaces like cinemas for weeks. During the weekend of April 4-5, ticket sales for the 10 biggest films on release in Japan totaled just $42,208, down from $18.2 million during a comparable weekend in 2019.

Japan's major nationwide cinema chains — such as the largest, Toho Cinemas, with 695 screens — are expected to be able to weather the crisis without too much trouble, since they are part of large entertainment conglomerates with ready access to financing.

But Japan's many small-scale independent cinemas — known locally as mini-shiat? (or mini-theaters) — could be facing a crisis. Such theaters comprise a sizable market for U.S. and European indie filmmaking, thanks to Japan's impressively broad base of art house-literate moviegoers.

Takashi Asai, an influential industry voice who runs the Uplink theaters in West Tokyo, told Japan's Cinema Today website that earnings "were trending to zero" and maintaining overhead become an urgent struggle.

Many of Japan's most influential filmmakers are now throwing their weight behind initiatives to support the struggling indie cinema business. On April 6, an online petition, #SaveTheCinema (Minishiata o Sukue), was launched to lobby the Japanese government to provide emergency financial support to art house theaters. Scores of directors, actors, artists and film professionals have signed on to the statement, including Cannes Palme d'Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters), Oscar winner Ryuichi Sakamoto and cult director Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man).

"Independent art house theaters, which are the hub of cinematic diversity, are especially at risk, with some facing extinction," the group's petition reads. "Mini theaters have taken root everywhere in our country and have been the core of Japan's film culture. They are not just for amusement ... Their facilities are just as important for a democratic society as art museums, drama theaters and concert halls."

Two of Japan's most influential young art house directors, Koji Fukada (Harmonium) and Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Asako I & II), have launched a parallel crowdfunding effort called the "Mini-Theater AID Fund." As of Friday, the effort had raised about $1.2 million (128.1 million yen) from 11,860 donors. The campaign will continue until May 14.

A group of indie theaters in Japan's Kansai region also have launched a T-shirt sales campaign to generate revenue during the coronavirus crisis.

"Encountering the unique works programmed by mini theaters gives us unforgettable memories — they are fundamental to the experience of cinema," the organizers of the Mini-Theater AID Fund say.