A Different Kind of Hope

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It’s really hard to imagine sitting in a movie theater again.

The last movie I saw in a theater was Takashi Shimizu’s Inunaki mura (Howling Village). Not the worst or laziest of Japan’s recent recycled J-horror efforts, but hardly memorable. It’s sad to think that it might be the last movie I watch in a theater until…2021, maybe. I can almost picture being in a park, or maybe on a beach (if I don’t have to ride a crowded train to get there). Or maybe sitting on the patio of a cafe in a less crowded part of the city on a weekday. But movie theaters? Nope.

Even thinking about going to a movie theater feels like a frivolous concern in a time when hundreds of thousands of people have died and millions are dealing with unprecedented levels of economic and emotional uncertainty. But the gradual disappearance or re-shaping of every facet of daily life—work, consumption, leisure—is part of that uncertainty. It’d be nice to go to a movie theater again, if only to feel normal for a little while. But it seems like it won’t be safe to do so for a long time.

I would imagine I’m not alone in my reluctance. As state of emergency shutdown measures are relaxed across Japan, movie theaters are opening with safety restrictions in place. But even with theaters open again, I doubt that this is one of the first places anyone will rush to.

The conversation around movie theaters and meaningful cinema experiences has also always struck me as more than a little classist and out of touch. Yes, it’s lovely to see a film in a large, dark space with superior sound and image quality, to focus your attention on it entirely in a way that’s harder to do at home. But it’s a mode of viewing that simply isn’t accessible for a lot of people, and it can add all kinds of stress to the experience. Though it’s not as much of an issue in Japan, in U.S. movie theaters I almost always dealt with talkers or obnoxious audience members. (There are at least a dozen movies where I remember more about the audience than the movie itself.) At home, at least, I can watch a film on my own terms—just me and my laptop in the dark.

For better or worse, though, movie theater ticket sales—especially opening weekend numbers, at least in the U.S.—are still a cornerstone of film industry revenue. Japanese mini-theaters are especially important to Japan’s always-struggling indie film scene, which has, like artistic industries all over the world, been hit extremely hard by COVID-19. Director Koji Fukada and a group of supporters recently started a crowdfunding campaign to save these small, independent movie theaters, many of which were already in danger of shutting down before the pandemic began. Thankfully, they exceeded their funding goal in a matter of days, but with revenues down nearly 100% during the state of emergency, it remains to be seen which theaters will still be in business a few months from now.

In the meantime, we’re watching a lot of stuff at home, and creators who’ve seen their traditional film sets or theaters shut down are getting inventive. Via YouTube, Twitter, or special paid platforms, we’ve gotten live symphony performances, actors and other celebrities getting together for a virtual seder, performances from the Public Theater, Oscar Isaac and Marisa Tomei doing a live reading of the play Beirut, and a frightening and creative filmed-at-home horror short from Lights Out director David Sandberg. Watching all of this content, some of it very good, I can’t help but wonder if this is the future of cinema, live theater, and TV, at least for the next year or so.

Those feelings get even stronger watching the delightful sequel to One Cut of the Dead, the fresh and energetic take on zombie films and bare-bones moviemaking that made waves at festivals and in Japan in 2018. Made on a shoestring budget, One Cut skillfully harnessed the power of social media and crowdfunding to become a huge hit. And it lived up to the hype—the movie was fun, innovative, and with a wonderful ensemble that I definitely wanted to spend more time with.

It wasn’t so surprising, then, that director Shinichiro Ueda and his team would see the current situation as an opportunity to make very creative use of the restrictions of both a limited budget and making a film under quarantine. This time everything happens via Zoom—and via footage that the actors shot themselves, which was then edited together to produce a short narrative. It’s funny and fresh in the same way as the original, and I’m grateful that they made it free on YouTube (where it now has English subtitles).

At the end, though, I found myself getting emotional. During a post-production Zoom nomikai, the “director” character, his daughter, and his wife chat about what they want to do “when this is all over,” a conversation I know I’ve had at least a half-dozen times in the past few months. They talk about going to restaurants or getting really drunk at a concert. But then the daughter starts to cry and says that she just wants to see a movie in a movie theater again. As they sign off, they say “next time, on set” (kondo, genba de), words that are echoed by actual director Ueda in his message to the audience at the end.

It’s yet another reminder that “when this is all over” is still a distant dream. Yes, movies will still get made in the (hopefully) near future, and maybe we’ll even start going to movie theaters again. But that reality feels very far away.

Until everyone can be “on set” again, though, I’ll happily consume (and pay for) whatever content creators like Ueda and his crew are able to produce. Sitting in a crowded movie theater and not feeling anxious might be too much to hope for, at least for the foreseeable future. But Ueda’s sequel gives me a different kind of hope—that creators can still be creative even in incredibly challenging circumstances, using the tools and even limitations at hand to make something fresh and new.

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