Gwen Battad Ishikawa

“Cinema Angel,” a fictional film based on a real-life movie theater in Hiroshima, is coming to the Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art. The film, which was written and directed by Hideyuki Tokigawa, had its Hawai‘i premiere at last October’s Hawaii International Film Festival.

Photo of “Cinema Angel” writer and director Hideyuki Tokigawa (Photo courtesy Hideyuki Tokigawa)
“Cinema Angel” writer and director Hideyuki Tokigawa (Photo courtesy Hideyuki Tokigawa)

In 2014, employees of the Daikokuza theater, the oldest movie theater in all of Japan, approached Tokigawa and asked him to make a film about the theater before it was demolished. The 122-year-old Daikokuza was located in Fukuyama City in Hiroshima. “I didn’t know what to film at first and I was wondering if we can make a TV documentary about the closing, but no one was interested,” Tokigawa wrote by email from Japan.

At a meeting, one of the theater employees began to cry. “Daikokuza was so important to everyone in the town. I realized that I have to take it seriously,” wrote Tokigawa.

After much consideration, he decided that the best way to tell the story of the Daikokuza and the people who loved it was to make a full-length feature film. “Even if the theater disappeared, it would live [on] in the film. I thought that was the best thing that we can do for the movie theater’s finale.”

Photo of Daikokuza Theatre
Daikokuza was the theater for movie viewing. People would line up just to watch movies, regardless of the film being shown. (Photo courtesy Hideyuki Tokigawa)

“Cinema Angel” is a fictional film about the Daikokuza staff, its longtime patrons and a strange apparition that haunts its halls. The film is set in the final days of the theater. In the film, Asuka, a relatively new employee at the Daikokuza, doesn’t understand why its longtime staff, manager and patrons are devastated by the theater’s impending closure . . . until she begins having strange dreams and meets a mysterious elderly man in the theater. She then begins to understand why the theater is so precious. She is also awakened to the power of cinema to change lives. “Cinema Angel” is a love letter to the Daikokuza and independent theaters around the world.

Tokigawa grew up in Hiroshima City, about an hour’s drive away from Fukuyama City, but had only seen a few movies at the Daikokuza. He remembered, however, that he saw his first feature film there, which Tokigawa described as being “really big” and having “a great atmosphere.”

While researching the Daikokuza’s history for the film, the 44-year-old writer/director learned that in its heyday, Daikokuza was the theater for movie viewing. People would line up just to watch movies, regardless of the film being shown. “They didn’t care about the title. For them, coming to the cinema was their big event . . .”

Tokigawa interviewed all of the Daikokuza’s employees and as many people as he could locate who had seen movies there.

With the theater’s demolition date fast approaching, Tokigawa was on a tight deadline. “I wrote the script in three weeks and we [called] many famous cast (actors) two weeks before the filming . . . which is crazy. Then we filmed everything in nine days.” The Daikokuza was demolished on the ninth day.

Japanese actor Kai Atö, who portrayed an elderly projectionist in the movie, died a year after the filming. Tokigawa described Atö as “funny and very charming.” “He contributed a lot to the film,” Tokigawa wrote.

Although the theater was much-loved, it was admittedly old and outdated in terms of technology. It was also located in an area where, for the last 20 years, residents had been moving away, preferring to live in more modern towns and cities.

A Lawson convenience store now occupies the property where the Daikokuza once stood. But the theater is remembered with a small monument in a corner of the parking lot.

The Daikokuza isn’t the only old movie theater to have faced its demise in recent years. Throughout Japan, 80 to 90 old movie theaters have gone the way of the Daikokuza over the last 20 years, due in large part to digital screening and moviegoers’ expectations of their theater experience. The old theaters have been replaced with multicinema complexes. In fact, Daikokuza’s former owner, Furec, operates two newer cinemas in Hiroshima city.

Despite the desire for the modern theater experience, Tokigawa believes many people still hold on to their old movie theater memories. He related that following the screening of “Cinema Angel” at HIFF last November, audience members shared their memories of old Hawai‘i theaters that have shut down over the years. “[A man] cried when he was trying to explain that to me. I think we can share this feeling everywhere in the world.”

Tokigawa took on the Daikokuza project after having previously worked for the Discovery Channel in Singapore and for Walt Disney Tökyö as a producer/director. He got his training at film school in Vancouver, Canada, after graduating from Meiji University in Tökyö. But Tokigawa’s interest in filmmaking began much earlier, in his childhood — he said he enjoyed watching movies as a child, which fueled his interest in filmmaking as he grew older. At the age of 10, he began filming his friends imitating scenes from kung fu movies.

Tokigawa first film, “Radio Love,” highlighted the role radio plays in connecting people, even today.

“Cinema Angel” will be shown at the Doris Duke Theatre on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 1 and 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Jan. 27, at 1 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 28, at 1 and 7:30 p.m. Admission is $10/general and $8 for museum members. Call 532-8768.

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