A Tale of Three (Yamaguchi) Theatres

On my first trip to Yamaguchi City, Japan, all I asked for was that we attend a baseball game.  Hiroshima being one Shinkansen stop away, we watched the Hiroshima Carps beat the Hanshin Tigers.  I was delighted to see more bicycle parking was provided at the stadium than car parking and it was a joy to walk alongside hundreds of cheering fans back to the train station following the win.

On my second trip to Yamaguchi, I wanted to make sure we watched a movie at Yamaguchi City’s independently-owned theatre, La Scala.  I ended up watching three films, each providing a different focus on the state of the modern cinema-going experience within this prefecture far from Tokyo.

The first film was my sister-in-law’s choosing, although supported by our young nieces.  We watched Madagascar 3 in 3D (further three-ed with 3 directors, Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, and Conrad Vernon, taking the helm for this installment).  The closest place it was playing was Hofu City, so my sister-in-law drove us out to the Aeon mall box in Hofu.  This way I could experience the multiplex firsthand in Japan.  It was a weekday, mid-day showing.  As a result, there wasn’t a large crowd in spite of it being summer vacation for the kids.  Roughly 20 or so people in the theatre, mostly moms or grandmas with their children/grandchildren, watched the film with us behind 3D glasses.  This multiplex is run by Warner-Mycal, a group company formed by Warner Bros. Inc. and Aeon Co. Ltd, which is why you find them in Aeon malls.  Yet, it’s not a given that the Aeon mall will have a multiplex.  While I’ve seen a number of Aeon malls in the prefecture, the only Warner-Mycal theatre in Yamaguchi is this one in Hofu City.

Dubbed in Japanese, the initial credits Madagascar still give Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, and company top-billing even though in Japan they did absolutely nothing.  (Yes, Chris Rock, did pen the lyrics for some songs.)  The bodies behind the disembodied Japanese voices don’t get their props until the end of the Pixar-pushed practice of a seemingly endless credits scroll which includes human resources, accounting, facilities, etc.  (This is a practice of which I highly approve, in spite of how long it takes, since it gives you a greater sense of all the people who make movies happen.  Plus, it was nice to see a friend who works for Dreamworks in these credits so far away from home and to point that out to my nieces, guaranteeing Uncle cool points.)  Although my nieces were doing their best to improve my hiragana knowledge as I joined them at the kitchen table each morning to study from their summer vacation workbooks, I am fairly ignorant of Japanese.  I had to rely on symbols and genre tropes to get the gist of the story in my first film from the Madagascar franchise.  Thankfully, this is a genre heavily bent towards the spectacle, although barely enhanced by the 3D gimmick, so I was able to stay entertained when not catching much of the actual dialogue.

Linguistically curious, I asked my wife if the dubbing went so far as to give, say, Vitaly the Russian tiger Russian-inflected Japanese, but she said she didn’t catch any such efforts.  As for our nieces, the age group for whom this type of film purports to be, they have had trouble with past films because of the high decibels imposed.  This time, however, the noise levels didn’t scare them off.  Afterwards, my nieces were curious which scene was my favorite.  I told them it was the first circus scene that included the Madagascar crew, whereas they really liked the chase scene at the beginning, which I agreed was pretty entertaining.

Our conversation didn’t extend beyond that, most likely because of my limited Japanese, but it also wasn’t really a film that inspired us to talk more and more.  Most of the fare at most multiplexes isn’t really geared towards contemplative cinema, but towards the spectacle, the date/hang-out flick, or to maintain cultural capital within social circles.  Or as Eran Ben-Joseph points out in his book Rethinking a Lot:  The Design and Culture of Parking (The MIT Press, 2012), critics often argue that generic spaces like shopping malls “. . . cannot generate feelings of belonging, or affectively produce rootedness”, that “these ‘no-places’ have been epitomized by anomie and alienation” (p. 4).  Although Ben-Joseph goes on to challenge this view held by many critics regarding what can be done with the similarly mundane parking lots that surround malls and industrial complexes, I tend to agree with the critics he’s referencing in that passage.  When I was younger, I would seek out malls because that was where the people were, but now that I’ve experienced the active public culture in the open-air arcades you find in Seoul, Busan, Hiroshima, and Tokyo, or the various neighborhoods of cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, I find malls fairly depressing.  And although this mall and this multiplex within it were in Japan, that anomie of “placelessness” still permeated the walls sectioned off for the movies.  The experience, look, and feel was similar to the multiplex at home in the U.S., which is the whole point of globalization.  The only difference is the language heard on the screen and in the seats before, after, and sometimes during, the film.  Even the snacks at this Japanese multiplex weren’t all that different.   My popcorn had a curry powder, but that’s not dissimilar from the nutritional yeast seasonings provided at places like the independent theatre The Balboa in San Francisco.   My drink was infused with a peach-flavor whereas my wife had the local Yamaguchi prefectural emphasis of yuzu, a lemon-y fruit from the region.  But still, saying that’s different is a stretch.  The candies were fairly similar to what is on offer at the U.S. multiplex too.

In the end, the multiplex still remained a less engaging venue, in spite of its location in another country.  What salvages the experience is cherishing this limited time with far-away family, such as a truly precious moment afterwards when my youngest niece ditched the family shoppers to join me at the Cafe du Monde next to the theatre just as I finished reading Oe Kenzaburo’s Somersault.  We sat there smiling at each other over cafe drinks wishing one of us knew the other’s language well enough to talk to each other, yet still feeling connected as family in spite of the linguistic barrier.

The experience of film that keeps me coming back to theatres as a cinephile had to wait for A Letter to Momo (2012) at the independent theatre in Yamaguchi City, named スカラ座.  My wife takes the katakana transliteration as ‘La Scala’, and the kanji is ‘za’, apparently a popular suffix for theatres.  We don’t know this for sure, but it’s a fair assumption that La Scala is a purposeful reference to the famous Italian opera house.  The theatre is above a ramen shop with lots of manga to peruse while slurping noodles.  And rather than driving there, we pedaled ourselves over, making the journey to the film just as lovely as the watching, as if we extended the leisurely pace of the film by our means of getting to and fro the theatre via bicycle.

Similar to some restaurants in Japan such as the Matsuya chain, we had to purchase our tickets in a vending machine before entering.  When we did enter, we found way more Japanese specific snacks and drinks than at the multiplex.   Plus, we could purchase filmbooks, which we did after making sure we liked the film.  The hallways to the theatres are a bit confusing in their layout, making it feel more apartment complex than multiplex.  Sadly, although it was a mid-day screening again, I hoped for greater numbers, but our screening was made up of one other patron other than my wife and I.

A Letter to Momo is a sweet little film with the subtle melancholic tone that makes so many appreciate Japanese anime for ‘kids’.  It’s fairly creepy at the beginning, but we eventually get to know the Yokai (goblins) that have latched onto our little Momo, a girl moving to an island with her mother following the death of her father, a death that happened at an impressionable moment in Momo’s life.  The three Yokai lack impulse control, eating and grabbing whatever they want.  This means food and other items from her house and that of others are taken and only Momo knows the Yokai are responsible for the thefts.  This is because only Momo, and another little girl on the island, can see and hear the Yokai.  Everyone else should feel lucky, because the Yokai aren’t pleasant looking folk.  The largest one has an expressionless face that is surprisingly more disturbing than the the other two who have faces that can convey greater emotion.  One Yokai, the smallest one, sounds like the ‘eh-eh’ aspirating ghost in Spirited Away would if he actually spoke sentences.  (My wife tells me the ‘eh-eh’-ing fueled quite the vocalized meme mimicry when Spirited Away was initially released.)  This vocal nuance was the most disconcerting element, but as further evidence for the greater complexity of this genre of Japanese story-telling is that in spite of these creepy quirks, you still could develop a connection with the Yokai.  Plus, the Yokai and their kind provide a wonderfully stunning visual moment near the end of the film that winks at character designer Masashi Ando’s Paprika pedigree.

A Letter to Momo was another film watched untranslated for me, but again, I still could rely on genre tropes and visuals as windows into what appears to be a compelling story.  My wife did whisper the occasional simultaneous translation in my ear.  But it says something about A Letter to Momo, and how much I enjoyed it, that upon recalling my experience with the film, I have a distorted memory that it was subtitled when it wasn’t.  (Here’s hoping the anime distributor GKIDS gives me an opportunity to re-visit this film subtitled in the U.S.)  Plus, there’s that mood and tone I mentioned before, a mood that doesn’t require explication through dialogue.  You just feel it through the design and pace of the world on screen.  The same phrase Merry White uses to describe the romance of the kissaten, or cafe, in her book Coffee Life in Japan (University of California Press, 2012), as spaces that “encompass a pleasant, shadowy, minor-key melancholy’ (p. 171) can be used to describe my experience with Japanese animation of this genre in general, and A Letter to Momo in particular.

As I mentioned before, we bought the film book after we confirmed we enjoyed the film.  This is where we learned the dance performed by Momo and the Yokai in the film since the book contains animated stills of the basics of the simple choreography.  I realized during this trip to Japan from watching all the commercials interspersed between the London Olympics coverage that a lot of Japanese commercials feature group dances.  For the most part, the choreography isn’t all that intricate, often childish, sometimes including children as participating dancers.  That lack of complexity allows for ease of replication, extending the brand beyond the commercial as kids, and perhaps a willing Uncle, mimic the steps seen on TV.  The result is a brand made manifest in physical form through movement.  Even though my nieces hadn’t seen A Letter to Momo, they were anxious to perform the dance with me.  The final bodily form of the dance, (for the U.S. reader, imagine an Omega Psi Phi fraternity salute with the arms formed in the shape of the Greek character Omega and ones legs forming the mirror-image of your Omega-ed arms), became a meme in our family that stirred laughter during each repeat performance.  In this way, A Letter to Momo marks my memory, unlike the quick hit of Madagascar 3 that failed to make lasting neural images.

The next and final bit of film-going in Yamaguchi required no translation.  Who would have thought I’d have to head out to little ol’ Yamaguchi City, Japan for my first screening of Nicholas Ray’s 1955 classic, Rebel Without a Cause?  Screened as part of the free summer outdoor series at the Yamaguchi City Art Museum (YCAM), this was clearly the film-highlight of my trip.  San Francisco has outdoor film events, but San Francisco weather is mostly cold or chilly at night, so watching outside isn’t a physically pleasurable experience.  However, in Yamaguchi in the summer time, we had the perfect night, not too hot and surprisingly mosquito-free.  We were lucky since out of the three films that were screened outdoors the weekend of August 10th-12th, we chose the one night it didn’t rain.

YCAM is just down the way from the La Scala theatre, so we rode our bikes to this screening as well.  While we waited at a stoplight, (another sign we weren’t in San Francisco), an older lady on her bike asked us if we were going to the movie.  It was a wonderful moment of civic-camaraderie that it was that obvious we were headed in the same direction to the same event.  The woman said she was attending to practice her English, an alternate affordance for subtitled cinema.  When we got there, we already found ourselves amongst a considerable number of Yamaguchians.  Eventually well over one hundred would arrive.  Some brought blankets to sit on, while others brought fold-up chairs.  One group was fully decked out in chairs, a table, and dinner!  Along the side was, to my wife’s delight, a shaved-ice stand and, to my delight, a coffee stand.  The coffee was prepared in my preferred pour-over style by Capime Coffee.  It was delicious.  Returning to White’s book again, she notes how kissaten owners make themselves walking billboards for their brand of idiosyncratic individualism through sartorial choices.  And the stylish, yet eccentric, hat worn by Capime Coffee’s barista provides further support for this aspect of White’s wider thesis that coffee, not tea, has been king in Japan since the late 1800s.

Yet this barista is clearly a rebel with a cause, unlike the movie.  I, like so many have over many years, enjoyed the film.  Part of my first timer joy was finding out Jim Bakus played the father all heavily emasculated in an apron (3rd Base fans, say it with me, ‘Larger than Jim Backus, is The Cactus!’).  I won’t go much into analysis since this film has had enough, but it was a true delight to see this obligatory member of the film studies canon projected on the side of the YCAM on such a gorgeous night.

Any avid cinephile would find much to love in YCAM’s film schedule if one finds themselves in Yamaguchi for whatever reason.  The first weekend we arrived, they were screening Lee Chang-do’s Poetry and were putting on a Lars Van Trier retrospective.  A few weeks after we left, Mikio Naruse was on the docket.  And I so wish I could head back in December for the Aki Kaurismäki film series.

As a result, it’s not just silly dances with my nieces that has me itching to return to Yamaguchi, but YCAM’s film curation as well.  And although I’ll catch whatever intriguing Japanese film might be on La Scala’s schedule too, I think I’ll skip the multiplex like I mostly do back home in the States.