When I lived in the suburbs of Dallas, I went to the movies at least once a month, if not more. There were a ton of options. My friends and I would go to the nearest IMAX theatre for the best summer blockbusters or frequent the local cineplex at the mall for midnight showings of new releases we just had to be the first to see. You knew you could always catch a new indie release at the Angelika. The old Hollywood down the street was the most popular theater growing up in the 90s, and I remember the few times my family splurged a little and took me there as a kid. Now it’s an outdated relic people only visit for catching discounted showings of movies that have already finished playing at any of the bigger, moderner theaters that silently sprung up and people moved onto over the years. If you were short on cash but still wanted a good time out, you could always catch a recently released film on DVD playing at the dollar theatre.
Movie-going is a huge part of American culture, but not so much in Japan. Theatre options are generally limited, and cinemas will consistently run you around 1,800 yen ($18 USD) a ticket unless you visit on special discount days/showings or purchase a pre-release ticket. Up until recently, my husband and I rarely went more than once or twice a year. Then we discovered that the old, retro theater in town had finally given up trying to compete with the other newer cinemas nearby, and started doing their own weekly showings of selected indies films and older releases. It felt a little like finding some of that old movie culture from back home.
30 years ago the Japanese economy was doing really well, and semi-rural cities like the one I live in started expanding, anticipating a growing population and wealth in the future. At some point an amusement center was built with a theater on the 6th floor. Of course the economy crashed in the late 80s, and with it my city’s dream of being anything more than semi-rural. Younger people started moving away for better jobs in bigger cities, and over the years the population has steadily decreased. The theater continued to do pretty well until about a decade ago when a newer cinema was built on the other side of the station and a central shopping area with an all-digital theater opened up the next town over.
Still the little theater kept chugging on, and instead of closing down, joined a rising trend to appeal to non-box office movie going enthusiasts. The ticket price and amenities don’t differ very much from the usual fare anywhere else, and what the theater lacks in modernity, it seems to make up in charm. The only employee, a woman who appears to be around my age, keeps everything running and looking tidy. Tickets are dispensed from a retro-style ticket vending machine, and random movie pamphlets from semi-current or decades pervious releases are sold to people who like to collect them in the lobby. Most of the patrons are film otaku and older adults who have memories invested in the place. There’s never more than a handful of other people in the theater with us, and we enjoy the extra privacy.
I’m a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence and noticed earlier this year The Poker House, titled Sōjuku no Iowa in Japanese, was finally making the rounds here in Japan. (Yes that’s right, six years late! D: ) Some weeks ago the retro theater added it to their weekly showing list, and I seized my opportunity to watch it with Mr. J.
We got our usual Coke (for Mr. J), melon soda (for me), and a medium popcorn to share.
Japanese theaters are big on assigned seating, but this particular one you can sit wherever you like. We always choose this spot at the upper, left balcony. 🙂
I’m not going to write a review/summary of the movie, but we both enjoyed the film. 🙂
But what about regular theaters in Japan, you say? Well, as I mentioned before, most theaters have assigned seating. It’s a wonderful system when you want to reserve tickets early to see a popular showing (Frozen, anyone? ) or arrive right before the movie starts without having to worry about all the good seats being taken. On the downside, it isn’t so great when you’re buying your tickets last minute.
Tickets are, of course, available at the box office but many theaters offer credit card ticket sales or online reservations if you click to their homepage. You get your pick of assigned seats and you don’t have to visit in advance or wait in line. Pretty sweet, eh? Online reservations can be exchanged at the box office window or at a computerized ticket printing machine in the lobby.
Cinemas might have two or more theater rooms offered for the same show, especially for non-Japanese releases. This is because many movies are offered in subbed/subtitled (jimakuban / 字幕版) or dubbed (fukikaeban / 吹替版) showings. Sometimes you can only find dubbed showings for certain kids movies or 3D releases.
Japan doesn’t really have much in the way of dollar or discount movie theaters, but you can save a little on ticket price by going to the late show (the last showing of the day), the first day of the month special (usually 1,000 yen or about $10 USD), Ladies Day (almost always on Wednesdays), or Mens Day (almost always on Thursdays). Married couples over 50 who visit together are often offered a senior discount, too.
You can also save on normal showings by purchasing advance discount fare tickets for upcoming releases at a convenience store or ticket shop up to 1-2 days or more before they hit theaters. I knew that my friend and I would be seeing Maleficent the first weekend it came out, so I picked up 2 tickets at Circle K using their service machine. Just make sure that wherever you purchase advance tickets from, the ticket isn’t confined to a different cinema chain (like Toho Cinemas vs. Cinemark, etc.) than you plan on choosing to use the ticket at, or that the ticket is valid for any theater nationwide.
You’ll probably notice that Japanese theaters are generally very modern looking and tidy. Often clean blankets are provided for guests to use and staff are more than happy to collect your concession trays afterward. The nice movie going atmosphere makes it somewhat worth the hefty price tag.
Another interesting thing to note is some of the cultural differences between Japanese movie goers and perhaps those in your home country. The first thing I noticed is that Japanese movie goers often stay seated until all of the ending credits have finished rolling. Adding to this, Japanese are generally punctual, so you won’t usually see people entering the theater late because it’s considered a little rude to shuffle around or in front of people after the film has started. Special movie goods, like pamphlets, keychains, clear files, etc. accompany popular releases and are available for purchase in the lobby.
Illegal downloading, although not as wide scale as it is in the West, is still a big film and music industry concern here. So whenever you visit a showing, don’t be surprised if you see a short clip during the previews featuring these guys reminding you that you might be in for a hefty fine if you get caught breaking the law.
How often do you guys in living in Japan go see a movie? Like I said, I’m not an avid movie goer besides the occasional visit to the old retro theater, but this week I went with a co-worker to see Guardians of the Galaxy and I highly recommend it whether you’re familiar with the series or not. 🙂