Step Into Japan

Independent Japanese Films and the Regional Mini-Theaters that Drive them Forward

words by Spike Acosta

Japan is not a stranger to blockbuster filmmaking. Movies such as Spirited Away and The Boy and the Heron, from the legendary Studio Ghibli, have garnered a global audience and are certified box office hits. Godzilla, the original movie monster who recently won an Academy Award for its latest iteration Godzilla Minus One, has been a commercial and cultural hit through all its many adaptations. Japanese movies have been a mainstay in global cinema, but there is also another side to films from the land of the rising sun.

Right now, there is a flourishing culture of Japanese independent cinema thriving on the ground. These moderately budgeted but richly crafted films are steadily gaining popularity in Japan. Similar to mainstream movies, these independent creations also come in diverse varieties – from comedy to drama, from the absurd to the compelling. Driving this movement forward are the more than 100 independent “mini-theaters” all across the Japan; each one uniquely reflecting the distinct culture of their particular area. These small independent movie houses give a platform for local filmmakers to showcase their work, with a focus on artistic films and documentaries. Through their regionally specific endeavors and unconstrained nature, these mini-theaters have served a vital role in nurturing the diversity of Japanese film culture. 

As eloquently phrased by Tamaki Tsuchida, assistant professor (full-time) in the Department of Intermedia Art and Science at the School of Fundamental Science and Engineering at Waseda University, “The movie theaters are themselves places of diversity and where culture is conveyed. At the same time, through the act of watching films, they possess the educational function of a throughline linking the past, present, and future.”

In 2023, the Japan Foundation launched JFF+ Independent Cinema, an on-line streaming film festival that brought the best of these independent Japanese films to a wider audience. The selection was curated with the help of the proprietors and managers of these mini-theaters. The result was a diverse lineup of movies that brought audiences from around the world closer to a different side of Japanese culture.

Here are the 10 mini-theaters that have partnered with the Japan Foundation for the JFF+ Independent Cinema:

Hakodate-shi, Hokkaido | Founded 1996 | Manager: SUGAWARA Kazuhiro

Cinema de Aeru
Miyako-shi, Iwate | Founded 2016 | Project Manager: ARISAKA Tamio

Fukaya Cinema
Fukaya-shi, Saitama |
Founded 2000 | Director: TAKEISHI Kenji

Fujiwa-shi, Kanagawa | Founded 2017 | Owner: TAKENAKA Shoko

Ueda Eigeki
Ueda-shi, Nagano |
Founded 1917 | Manager: NAGAOKA Shunpei

Motomachi Movie Theater
Kobe-shi, Hyogo |
Founded 2010 | Representative: TAKAHASHI Isao

jig theater
Tohaku-gun, Tottori |
Founded 2021 | Managers: SHIBATA Shuhei, MIYAKE Yuko

Cinema Onomichi
Onomichi-shi, Hiroshima|
Founded 2008 | Manager: KAWAMOTO Seijun

Karatsu-shi, Saga|
Founded 2019 | Director: KAIDA Haruko | Manager: KAWAGUCHI Yuiko

Sakurazaka Theater
Naha-shi, Okinawa |
Founded 2005 | Manager: Kabushiki gaisha Crank

Click here to to learn more about these mini-theaters at the official website of the JFF+ Independent Cinema.

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