Beloved Theater In Nagano Keeps The Reels Rolling After 100 Years

Beloved theater in Nagano keeps the reels rolling after 100 years

NAGANO--The Nagano Aioi-za Roxy, believed to be Japan's oldest movie theater, marked its 100th anniversary in December.

Beloved by the townsfolk, the cinema has been showing a unique choice of films instead of the usual movie premieres on its three screens for 365 days a year.

The old-fashioned wooden structure, with 512 seats and a brick-colored ticket booth, was built as a playhouse in 1892, 25 years before it was turned into a movie theater.

In 1917, the predecessor of Nagano Eiga Kogyo, the cinema’s current operating company, was founded.

According to a brochure compiled by a study group on Nagano’s history, it is the oldest existing movie house in Japan.

"It takes some work to maintain, but I’m happy if it is a comforting place for our patrons," manager Mari Tagami, 46, said.

Tagami started working at the cinema 11 years ago.

She had developed a personal attachment to the theater after she and her mother had to stand to watch "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" because all of the seats were taken.

Around that time, the operating company was at a crossroads.

A multiplex opened in the city in 2006, and long-established movie theaters started closing down.

Roxy had the distribution rights for Shochiku Co. films, but the leading studio and distributor backed out of the arrangement.

"I think (the operating company) could have chosen to shut down, but they decided to continue operating as a locally based theater," Tagami said.

Nagano-native Marina Tsukada, a 26-year-old film director, visited Roxy after classes and on holidays during her senior high school days.

She said she was fascinated by the wide variety of works shown and was touched by the cakes served by staff.

Tsukada recalls a film director telling her at Roxy that if she liked movies, it would be best to do what she liked.

She feels that comment made her who she is today.

This past summer, her movie "Taste of Emptiness," which is about an eating disorder and is based on her own experiences, was screened at Roxy. The director also took the stage to greet the audience.

"I was happy to see my film shown at my favorite place," Tsukada said. "Because I owe a lot to Roxy."

In addition to programs featuring the "Tora-san" series and other classics, the cinema presents a wide range of old and new films from Asia and Europe, as well as documentaries. Roxy also often takes requests from fans.

"I can casually chat about movies with the staff," said Itsuko Ota, 68, who runs a barbershop in the city and frequents Roxy about 10 times a month. "I can even ask them to play something like this next time."

Ota added: "I like its retro atmosphere and film selection. I want them to push on, and I will spare no effort in providing cooperation."