The Little Tokyo Cinemas in Yaohan Plaza in downtown Los Angeles will close its doors for the last time tonight, leaving the nation without a Japanese-language movie house.
Except for the war years of the '40s and the year between the closing of the Kokusai in 1986 and the opening of the Little Tokyo in June, 1987, Japanese-language theaters--as many as four at one time--have been operating in Los Angeles for 80 years. Ironically, at a time when Japanese companies are investing heavily in the American film industry and the Japanese-speaking community is growing, the last of those theaters is going out of business.
There's talk of a restaurant--a Chinese restaurant--going in where the Little Tokyo Cinemas are, but the theaters are not closing for lack of interest. The decline of Japanese-language theaters is much more complicated than that and traces all the way back to the ways movies are made and distributed in Japan.
First of all, the major Japanese film companies have never been able to see the wisdom of joining together to show only their best product at a single, conveniently located theater. An enterprising manager at the old Toho La Brea wanted to do that in the early '60s, making it the "Showplace of Japanese Cinema," and besides product from the prestigious Toho studio, he was able to pick up only the occasional lurid low-budget movie from the lesser ranking Nikkatsu.
The inroads of television on film production were slow but sure in Japan, and the Japanese motion picture industry has been in a downward spiral for years. Consequently, the majors have been making fewer films, and many have been modest programmers of appeal primarily to the dwindling older Japanese-American audience.
On the other hand, the generally more venturesome Japanese independent productions such as Juzo Itami's "Tampopo" and his two "Taxing Women" films have increasingly ended up at art theaters in a mix with other foreign and offbeat films. The venerable Shochiku Co., which opened the Little Tokyo Cinemas under a management contract, was the last Japanese major to try to supply a local theater with predominantly its own product. Shochiku pulled out June 1.
Since then, veteran exhibitor Moto Yokoyama, former owner-manager of the Kokusai, and Terry Boyle, also an experienced theater manager, have been running the Little Tokyo Cinemas for the Yaohan Plaza. The Plaza's general manager, Yoshiya Watanabe, has not returned calls regarding the closing of the theaters.
Yokoyama and Boyle have been with the Little Tokyo since its opening, Yokoyama as assistant manager and Boyle as chief projectionist, publicist and assistant booker. They lament the closing of the Little Tokyo Cinemas--business, they believe, has picked up since they've been free of the commitment to show Shochiku product. Yokoyama would like to find another theater to show Japanese films while Boyle hopes to relocate somewhere on the Westside and with a different policy.
"I believe there is a strong market for a first-class repertory theater in Los Angeles--a great theater, showing great foreign and American classics at fair prices and with other innovative policies that will attract a large and loyal following," said Boyle recently. "To support this, I point to the success enjoyed by the Little Tokyo with classic Japanese films in our Cinema 2. The recent Kurosawa retrospective and the near 10-hour 'Human Condition' often played to packed houses.
"It is important to add that over 80% for the Japanese classics has been Caucasian. When you factor in the large number of people who would like to see these films but don't want to come downtown to see them you can forecast significant grosses for a good Westside location."
In the meantime, Japanese-speaking movie fans will have the same very sparse menu of Japanese-language films as the rest of us, a handful of award winners and high-profile movies geared toward sophisticated or international audiences. For the ordinary or more adventurous moviegoer, one more cultural link will be cut.