a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

A Cinephile’s Guide to Tokyo

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The National Film Center in Tokyo

The National Film Center

The cinema landscape of Tokyo ain’t what it used to be. Maybe it never was. As in much of the world, small independent movie houses struggle against an environment of new and bigger state-of-the-art multiplexes, and new and different diversions that move potential moviegoing yen away from theaters towards cheaper and more portable delivery systems of the moving image. A quick glance around while riding the subway, it never ceases to amaze that the majority of commuters are glued to their keitai (cell phones), messaging, playing games, reading cell phone novels… and watching movies.

But in this ever-morphing metropolis, there are still some funky holdouts from a more golden age of movie consumption — brave institutions that still believe in the traditional culture of cinema.


Just off the Sumida River in the northeast section of central Tokyo is Asakusa. This old neighborhood was the first in Tokyo to have electricity. Coupled with a lively theater scene already in place and bordering one of the old “pleasure districts” of the time, it was primed for the embracing of all things new. And that meant movies. This is where the first movie houses in Japan started. People now come to Asakusa to marvel at the impressive Sensoji Temple and indulge in the tourist trap ambiance that has grown around it.

But just a few streets away from the temple a taste of old shitamachi (“low city” or old downtown) Tokyo beckons with friendly izakayas (bars), a large off-track betting station, taishuengeki (popular entertainment) theatres – favorite hangouts of the film director and actor Takeshi Kitano — and a handful of cinemas, where for a 1000 yen one can disappear into dark musty rooms and catch triple bills of old yakuza, chanbara and Toro-san films unspooled with scratched and faded prints. The Asakusa Shin Gekijo and the Meigeza are among the last cinemas in the neighborhood. The site of the first cinema in Japan is only a few hundred feet from the doors of Meigeza. It’s now an indoor soccer field.

Revival Houses

Jimbocho Theater

Jimbocho Theater

For a continuing sentimental education on Japanese film there are several revival houses dotting the city. Meigeza is a bit of potluck in terms of what gets thrown on the screen. But Ikebukuro’s Shinbungeiza, Laputa in the hip west side neighborhood of Asagaya, and the new Jimbocho Theater, in the heart of Tokyo’s booksellers district, screen well-curated series devoted to particular actors, directors and genres. For the nerd, scholar or general film lover, the depth and breadth of these programs can be overwhelming.

And then there’s the National Film Center. Every year they trot out newly restored prints of both forgotten and recognized masterpieces. In a rather institutional setting the have two screens showing films from morning until the early evening in addition to gallery displays of ephemera, photos and texts from the history of Japanese cinema.

In its heyday, Japanese cinema was tied to a massive studio system where production companies also controlled distribution and exhibition. By the 1970s, this system was breaking down. Along with the rise of independent producers, new exhibition houses sprung up.

The west side hub of Shibuya seems blessed with some of the most innovative and best indie houses in the city.

La Jetee

La Jetee

Other Cinemas

A short hike from the station is the granddaddy, and still the most innovative of Tokyo’s independent cinemas, Image Forum. Behind its handsomely designed glass and concrete façade is a bustling arts center.  Apart from screening the best of new Japanese production and foreign films, they have regular Friday night open screenings, lectures and classes, and they sponsor the edgiest experimental film festival in Tokyo. Founded in 1972, Image Forum is a Mecca for indie film.

Also in the neighborhood are Cinema Rise and Eurospace/Cinema Vera – both worthy of visits, not only for their programs, but also for their architecture. (Independent film houses in Tokyo highlight some of the best architecture in the city. Laputa’s Brobdingnagian fantasy, Jimbocho Theater’s angular post-modernism, Image Forum and Eurospace’s strong industrial statements and Cinema Rise’s simple oddity enliven an otherwise dreary architectural landscape.)

To top off a day of heavy moviegoing the mandatory stop is La Jetee, titled after the Chris Marker film of the same name. In fact, when in Tokyo, Marker’s a regular at the bar – as are Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, who have their own bottles of whisky behind the counter. Located in the heart of Golden Gai, a post-war warren of small alleyways and tiny bars, La Jetee’s cluttered confines seat about six people around the bar and a few more in a single booth at one end. There’s a table charge of 2,000 yen ($20) just to sit there. Drinks are extra. But it’s well worth it to chat film and raise a glass to the movies with owner Tomoyo Kawai and whomever else may have dropped by.

Originally published in Film in Focus, April 30, 2010


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