Walk around the city and all you tend to see are giant movie theater multiplexes. One after the other, the old local cinemas are closing down. After all, these days, you can rent a DVD or download a film online to watch it in the comfort of your own home and in high quality — all of which means fewer and fewer people go that extra mile to see a movie in the theaters.
Amongst all this decline, there is still a type of cinema continuing to protect movie theater tradition and culture, and that’s the revival house or repertory cinema (called megaza in Japan). These movie theaters are typically small and screen older films in double bills. What’s special about them is how the movie fanatic staff select what gets screened, so you can see really good flicks, as well as experience them inside an authentically old and cramped theater. Plus ticket prices are cheaper than multiplexes. We popped along to one of Tokyo’s best-known megaza, Waseda Shochiku, which you can find in the student town of Takadanobaba, to ask manager Mayumi Kikuta about the charms of the revival house.
To start, please tell us about the history of Waseda Shochiku.
It first opened in 1951 as a regular movie theater showing new Japanese films. Athough it is called Shochiku, it’s not actually part of the Shochiku group. The person who built Waseda Shochiku originally worked at Shochiku and when he left there, he started a company with people who he knew through Shochiku, so they kept the name.
From around 1975 the cinema started to show double bills of western films. But then in 2002 it closed down. After around eight months it was able to re-open but when it did it showed ‘The Twilight Samurai’, so from then it has screened not only western films but also Japanese ones and Asian cinema. And that brings us up till today.
We’ve heard that Waseda University students were involved with helping the cinema to re-open.
Yes, that’s right. It seems that Waseda University students talked amongst themselves about how the cinema was closed as it couldn’t make ends meet. Some of them wanted to vitalize the Waseda area so they started up the Waseda Shochiku Project and gathered signatures. They even rang up the company and begged them to open the movie theater again.
There seems to be something special about the way the films are chosen at Waseda Shochiku. Who makes the selections and how?
In our staff there is both a male and female programmer, plus a deputy manager who is very knowledgeable about older films. Between these three we put together candidates and then to discuss if these are suitable for Waseda Shochiku, we hold programming meetings twice a month and then make the final decision on what will be screened.
We screen double bills so can have mini retrospectives and seasons for certain directors, such as putting his or her latest film on alongside an older one. Or we might have two films which have different directors but there are related somehow, and we combine them under a name. Plus one week every month we always show classic films.
It must be tough to choose.
It is — every week the films change!
Moreover, new films are not being shot on film so there are fewer films that can be screened. We introduced DLP (Digital Light Processing) in June so can now finally screen digitally shot movies, but it was really hard to program May and June. Sometimes it was like we had a whole month of classics. [Laughs]
Well, that still sounds pretty interesting, though. [Laughs]
Is there a particular double bill that sticks in your memory?
It would be the double bill of the Waseda-themed ‘Kirishima bukatsu yomaeru tteyo’ and the Korean film ‘Sunny’. The films were put together under the umbrella of a “high school days” movie double bill but Daihachi Yoshida, the director of ‘Kirishima’, came, as did fans of the Korean film.
I later heard that the producer and fans had speculated that this sort of combo is the “kind of thing Waseda Shochiku might do”. And then we actually did decide to screen the two films together so they wanted to really vamp things up, and that’s why Daihachi Yoshida came and gave a talk.
Both the programmers and makers really felt it was a great double bill. Well, that’s the appeal of double bills, isn’t it?
You just mentioned the “kind of thing Waseda Shochiku might do”. But what is that? What is it that Waseda Shochiku — and only Waseda Shochiki — can do?
We send out an email newsletter and Twitter updates as the programming gets fixed, and people’s response to this is great. “They’re showing that one?!” “What, a double bill with these two?” We’re aware of how everyone really expects the unexpected in our programming.
There are even some people who bring flyers from other theaters and ask us when we are going to show the movie. They see it is showing somewhere else but think if we will screen it then they can wait to see it. We feel really grateful that people are counting on us like this.
Waseda Shochiku also gives out passes so audiences can see one film and then go out and eat something or have a drink, and then come back. There are students who see one film in the morning, take a class and then on the way home catch another film. [Laughs] You can’t do this at other movie theaters. Letting people enjoy films all day is another thing that Waseda Shochiku can do.
As more and more multiplexes appear in the city and movie theaters disappear, what do you think is the role of the revival house?
I think it’s the reunion with a film that you saw when you were younger when first released, and now see again on the big screen. And since we screen double bills, I think there is this new discovery or encounter where you go see one of the films, but find that the other one was also really good.
Lastly, do you have a goal for what you want the movie theater to be in the future?
Well, I just want to keep on going. Movie theaters are getting fewer and fewer, and here in Takadanobaba there is now just this one. Waseda students tell us things like “I’m glad that there is still a movie theater”, or we hear things like “I’m glad that the films I saw when I was a student are now being shown here again” or “I never thought I’d get the chance to see this film again on the big screen” — so I just want to keep on going.
Yes, please do keep on going! Mayumi Kikuta, thank you.