By Makoto Tanaka / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterA pioneering art house theater called Iwanami Hall, which has screened about 250 films from around the globe, celebrated its 50th anniversary on Friday.
Located in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, Iwanami Hall opened in 1968 as a multi-purpose facility for concerts and plays. In 1974, it kicked off a movement to find and screen lesser-known cinematic gems from home and abroad. Called “Equipe de cinema,” meaning a “film team” in French, the hall screened “Apur Sansar” (The World of Apu), directed by Satyajit Ray, as its first offer under the initiative.
The Indian film set the tone for Iwanami Hall to show works from all over the world. It has repeatedly featured Ray, legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda and the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. The theater has also focused on works from Georgia, a film giant among the former Soviet Union republics, and during the 1980s, it presented Chinese films, many of them proving popular.
According to the hall, it had screened 245 films from 55 countries and territories as of January, excluding special screenings.
“Due to globalization and the rise of the internet, the production methods and content of films are increasingly uniform,” said Takehide Harada, the hall’s press and publicity officer. “We hope to show how diverse the world of film is through the works we feature.”
The hall is currently showing “In Bloom” (Japan title: “Hana Saku Koro”) as the first film in the venue’s 50th anniversary season. The Georgian film is directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross. “Centaur” (Japan title: “Uma o Hanatsu”) will follow from March 17. Directed by Aktan Arym Kubat, the film focuses on a man living in a Kyrgyz village who steals horses before releasing them in a field.
Iwanami Hall has highlighted documentaries as well, such as those by Sumiko Haneda, who said it was a turning point in her career when the cinema house liked one of her works and screened it.
“When my ‘Hayachine no Fu’ [Ode to Mt. Hayachine] was screened there in 1982, people around me weren’t sure whether moviegoers would go see a documentary,” Haneda said. “Once it started, however, there was a long line. Since then, I think it’s become an accepted view that documentary films are also interesting.”
Haneda said she has watched most of the films screened at Iwanami Hall, which has given her opportunities to become friends with directors from around the world as they came to Japan for the screening of their films there.
“I don’t know what the world of motion pictures will be like from now on,” the filmmaker said. “But I believe a new world will open up if a place like Iwanami Hall continues to appreciate films and help many people become aware of them.”
Film critic Tadao Sato said that among cinema houses showing good films, only Iwanami Hall “has lasted 50 years while maintaining the great aim of screening only good films.”
“It was also groundbreaking that the hall declared its director-oriented policy to run all the films made by the people it likes,” he added.
Sato praised the hall’s stance of rejecting the “business” of film and of staying faithful to its policy of showing each film for a set period of time no matter how popular it is.
Art house theaters like Iwanami Hall, however, are facing a difficult time. They had to vie with cinema complexes in the 2000s and then with streaming services in recent years, which means there are fewer films they can show. In addition, more and more people are enjoying films on smartphones or tablets, undercutting the raison d’etre of film theaters.
“We have to convey to young people that watching a film together with other viewers in the darkness of a cinema can give them a new experience in their lives,” said Ritsuko Iwanami, director of Iwanami Hall, during a press conference in mid-January. She took over her post from the late Etsuko Takano, who was the central figure of the Equipe de cinema movement.