The Advent of “Mini Theater”: The Diversification of International Films in Japan and a New Kind of Film Ephemera

The Makino Collection, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University in the City of New York
Serial film magazine/program. Iwanami Hall #19 (1977). THE ROUND-UP/Szegénylegények, directed by Miklós Jancsó (Hungary)

As we discussed in an earlier blog post, Art Theatre Guild (ATG), Japan’s first independent film production company, firmly established the foundation of production and distribution of non-commercial, art house films. Movie theaters that distributed independent films appeared in the Japanese film industry between the 1980’s and the 1990’s.

In the post-war period, people’s cultural tastes dramatically diversified. People began to crave something more subtle than just popular mainstream Western films. Those blockbuster films pervasive in the market and large movie theaters for the purpose of attracting large audiences were over-supplied, and new demands for film distribution methods and unique film line-ups were generated. Thus, the number of mini theaters increased dramatically in the 1980’s, in response to the demand.

The Makino Collection, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University in the City of New York
Serial film magazine/program. Iwanami Hall #11 (1976). THE GOAT’S HORN, directed by Methodi Andonov (Bulgaria)

Films with highly artistic aspects generally appeal only to a small audience, and thus they are not box-office successes. Acknowledging this limitation and possessing new perspectives for future films, a film distribution project called, Equipe de Cinema (lit. fellows/party/team of cinema) was launched in 1974 as a movie theater at Iwanami Hall, which used to be a multipurpose hall (built by Iwanami Shoten Publishers, one of the biggest publishing companies in Japan); they became pioneers of minor film distribution and mini theaters in Japan. The project was headed by Etsuko Tanakno, general manager of Iwanami Hall, and Kashiko Kawakita, film curator, popularly known as “Madame Kawakita” among the overseas film industry, who formed the cornerstone of Art Theatre Guild.

– Our primary mission is to uncover hidden masterpieces and show them to the public, and to put a spotlight on film countries, and specifically new and powerful directors from the third world. (1974, Equipe de Cinema No. 2)

Equipe de Cinema/Iwanami Hall brought films to light with social themes that once were considered inappropriate for film distribution. They also strove to bring unknown female directors to the public. In other words, Equipe de Cinema’s launch in the film industry was considered a social movement in Japanese film history. They also happened to produce unique film programs for their regular film release. As these mini theaters steadily gained popularity, in the 1980’s, many independent movie theaters were established, following the style that Equipe de Cinema formed: a small capacity and a selection of non-box office masterpieces.

The Makino Collection, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University in the City of New York
Serial film magazines/programs. From left, Iwanami Hall #60, #63, #64, #69, #76 (1983-1986). MOLIERE by Ariane Mnouchkine (France); IPHGENIA by Michael Cocoyannis (Cyprus); DANTON by Andrzej Wajda (Poland); KAYAKO NO TAMENI by Oguri Kohei (Japan); ALSINO AND THE CONDOR by Miguel Littín (Chile)

These independent movie theaters have played an important role in bringing diverse and quality films to audiences, uniquely selected by the theater no matter in what period the film was released, or where the film was produced. In the Japanese film industry, these theaters are called “mini theaters” – or, “mini shiatā.” In Japanese, the “mini” in “mini theater” means small or small scale, exactly as the original English word suggests.

Movie theaters in the early period of Japan were built on a large scale for blockbusters, with 500 to 1,000 seats, and the word “mini theater” was created to contrast with the large roadshow theaters that releases films at the same time all over Japan. A mini theater is an independent movie theater that releases films according to its own line-ups, and the capacity of mini theaters is generally less than the 200 seats that Iwanami Hall started with.

Mini theaters completely altered the regular selection of films; these theaters started to release European films in the 1980’s – for example, pieces from La Nouvelle Vague/French New Wave. The line-up varied, from special showings of classic masterpieces to retrospectives focused on particular minor themes, film directors, actors or countries. You might see there: for instance, films of Miklós Jancsó from Hungary, Andrzej Wajda from Poland, and Metodi Andonov from Bulgaria. Furthermore, mini theaters greatly contributed to Japanese independent films’ pervasiveness among audiences; some mini theaters took the lead in releasing cutting-edge films by unnamed Japanese filmmakers. This movement even triggered the revival of quality domestic film production.

The Makino Collection, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University in the City of New York
Iwanami Hall, Members’ monthly magazine, TOMO (1977-1981)

While blockbusters were promoted via newspapers, magazines, and commercials on TV and big screens downtown, the promotion of mini theater were concentrated on film fliers and theater member bulletins. In order to efficiently attract audiences, film programs and member bulletins were also quality-oriented; the film programs were geared toward theater-members or sold with the film released each month, and they were given with serial numbers like serial magazines. The contents were full of information that appealed to fans of arty and difficult films. Because the programs were like serial independent film magazines, they made film fans want to keep checking out forthcoming films in the mini theaters.

The Makino Collection, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University in the City of New York
* Yes, these compact programs could fit in a girl’s purse. Mini Theater magazines/programs. From left, Cinema Square Magazine #6 (1982): NICKELODEON by Peter Bogdanovich, Chanter Cine2 #6 (1988): THE WINGS OF DESIRE by Wim Wenders, Cine Switch #16 (1989): EVERYBODY’S FINE by Giuseppe Tornatore, Cinema Rise #26 (1990): MY LEFT FOOT by Jim Sheridan
The Makino Collection, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University in the City of New York
* Quote from the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest film directors in film history, and an examination of the film by Tadao Satō, one of the most famous film critics. Iwanami Hall, #2 (1974). The Apu Trilogy, directed by Satyajit Ray

The size of mini theater film programs are usually smaller than the regular modern programs of today, which is “A4“, with a concept, “handy film programs which can fit in a girl’s purse”. This new style of mini theater film programs added significant value as a reading material for movie-goers.

As discussed, mini theaters ushered in a part of film culture as a powerful minority, and made a tremendous impact to the Japanese film industry. The advent of mini theater triggered and supported the further diversification of international films in Japan. The achievements of mini theater as a pioneer in Japanese film history are immense. As time went on, drive-in theater and cinema complexes, as well as other new forms of movie theaters, emerged, much as the style of movie theaters and screens transformed to fit the needs of the time. In this situation, the market was more than saturated, and mini theaters’ ability to attract theater goers weakened and were no longer strong enough to go on.

Amid the diversification of media and film distribution, some of the most prosperous mini theaters in the Tokyo metropolitan area were closed: Cine Vivant, which uncovered art films, in 1999, Cine Saison in 2011, and Ginza Theatre Cinema in 2013. Many factors could be involved in the rate of mini-theater closings, such as the restructuring of unprofitable business operations in the changing film industry, as well as the diversification of content providers and media and the change in audience demographics and viewing habits. On the other hand, some movie theaters tackled the issue and developed new styles of movie theaters, so as to enhance films’ intrinsic quality and continue the primary mission of bringing quality films to audiences.

What forms do you think future independent theaters should take to keep up?