Tokyo Movie Theaters

By Sean Williams | May 3, 2010
The Shin-Bungeiza theater The Shin-Bungeiza theater

Cinematographer Sean Williams offers up his subjective perspective on going to the movies in Tokyo.

Cinematographer Sean Williams (Frownland, Yeast, Abel Ferrara’s forthcoming Mulberry St.) recently shot Jessica Oreck’s documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, a strikingly shot documentary about Japan’s obsession with insects, which is being released this month. Below, as part of Movie City Tokyo he offers his personal recollections of moviegoing in the Japanese capital.

There seems to be an endless number of movie theaters tucked away in Tokyo. For every theater I went to, I would see a stack of flyers for films playing in ten more places I hadn't yet explored. A favorite spot is a theater called Shin-Bungeiza. Every Saturday night they do a program of films by a certain director. The show starts at 10pm and goes until at least 5am. The trains in Tokyo don't run between around 1am to 5am, so it should be like a shelter for the night drifters. I found the crowd normal and healthy. I had the feeling I was the only one drifting off to slumberland, which was suitable for the films. For some reason, I was convinced that some mentholated eyedrops I had bought earlier in the week would keep me awake if dripped down my throat. It was a program of Teruo Ishii films which included some brand new prints (unsubtitled in English, of course). The program began with a very funny, filthy Sonny Chiba action film, followed by the gorgeous Horrors of Malformed Men (Kyôfu kikei ningen: Edogawa Rampo zenshû). The third film seems to have escaped my memory, but the last one was Boachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight (Bôhachi bushidô: Poruno jidaigeki). The effect of the eyedrops or just exhaustion, I can't tell which, contributed to what was certainly a trip. The colors in the new print of this film were unlike any I had seen before. All I seemed to see was Tetsuro Tanba's big serious face and a kaleidoscope of deeply colorful breasts. I put the film somewhere at the top of my favorites.

Ikkakuza was specially created to show The Whispering of the Gods

Ikkakuza was specially created to show
The Whispering of the Gods

A less exciting but maybe more special and rare movie experience occurred in a theater that sort of reminded me of Anthology Film Archive in New York, the Ikkakuza. In 1980, when no one in Japan wanted to screen Seijun Suzuki's Zigeunerweisen, Genjiro Arato (who sort of looks like a Japanese Jonas Mekas), the film’s producer, took it upon himself to build a tent for exhibition purposes. The film went on to win four Japanese Academy Awards. In 2007, Arato produced another film, Germania. After a few festival screenings, Arato constructed another temporary theater, Ikkakuza, on the grounds of the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno. After Germania ran, Arato kept the theater for months screening other films he produced as well as films made by friends and associates. The film I saw there was Aiyoku no wana, directed by Atsushi Yamatoya. The film, from 1973, starring Arato, was confusing, rough to look at and listen to... I loved it. The theater closed only a few months after, I believe, its purpose fulfilled.

Traveling movie viewers be warned, English subtitles are rarer than dairy in Japan.

By the way, if you travel to Okinawa, look for a theater in Okinawa City that screens vintage 35mm prints of Japanese pornos all day long!!!  No joke, I couldn't believe what I saw. There is a schedule in the ticket booth, but it has nothing to do with what screens. I guess the projectionist DJ's according to what fetish appeals to him at the moment.

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