The power of a cultural institution shouldn’t be judged by its size alone. Because if that were the criterion, Cinema Amigo wouldn’t stand a chance. Sitting one street away from the beach in Zushi, a surfers’ city an hour’s train ride from Tokyo, this cinema is as small as they come. Camouflaged among the homes of this residential neighbourhood (aside from a metal sign on the building’s side), the screening room can host a maximum of 20 viewers. It’s what cinemagoerswould call a boutique experience yet, in this seaside town, it’s a space that punches above its weight in bringing the community together.
This friendly spirit is what inspired founders Gen Nagashima, Rai Shizuno and Eisuke Deguchi to set up 10 years ago. A musician, photographer and interior designer respectively, the trio first met at the now defunct bar-cum-venue Solaya, a 20-minute drive down the coast in Hayama. All of them helped in the running of that music-oriented space and witnessed how it attracted artists, creatives and curious onlookers. When, eventually, the bar had to close down, the group of new-found friends weren’t ready to forsake a cultural gathering point – so they decided to open one of their own. “That’s when we got the idea for a cinema,” says Nagashima, sat in Cinema Amigo’s office, the sound of the afternoon screening downstairs audible through the floor. “We realised there was no cinema in the area.”
That initial idea spurred them on for more reasons than just plugging a gap in the region’s cultural offering. A cinema, they realised, could do more than play movies. Armed with a ¥4m (€33,000) budget, they bought a projector and a sound system, and set off to collect antique, mismatched furniture for free. The charming, vintage-style room they outfitted doubles up as a cosy bar. “We wanted to open a culture complex and this was a good way to combine things,” says Nagashima, who is half-Welsh (though you wouldn’t know it from his accent). “In a cinema space you can hold exhibitions, gigs – you can involve generations other than your own.”
Spend a day at Cinema Amigo and you’ll see what he means. Although his selection of films – all independent, many foreign, most niche – attract older citizens during the day, the late-night DJ sets and live concerts bring in a different crowd. Every week new musicians come in from across the area – or from Tokyo – and many of them wake up to the charms of Zushi in the process.
Working to further their area’s cultural credentials was always a goal: Shizuno is from nearby Kamakura but Nagashima and Deguchi grew up in Zushi. The latter was working as a designer for lifestyle brand Beams in Tokyo when he felt his hometown’s pull. “We wanted to revive culture here,” says Nagashima. “The city has its fun sides but it’s different.”
The real turning point was their idea to stage a festival. The Zushi Beach Film Festival, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, began as a screen pitched up on the sand. Since then the 10-day affair, organised during Japan’s spring holiday of Golden Week to maximise the influx of beachgoers, has grown into a funfair that draws about 20,000 people. Other than a themed line-up of films (every day has a different fil rouge, be it kids’ day, sports day or skateboard day) there are talks, performances, yoga and food stalls. Their participation in foreign events, including the San Sebastian Film Festival – in honour of which the Zushi festival set up Basque day – has also helped attract people from beyond Japan. “We try to make connections with cities of the same size, ones that are suburban but still have an active culture scene,” says Nagashima.
The success of the festival inspired Cinema Caravan, another outdoorsy spin-off. Deceptively the initiative doesn’t consist of a moving film trailer but a series of pop-up events that started off in cities across Japan but have now decamped to foreign locations, including the Netherlands. Other than working wonders for Cinema Amigo’s profile, these ventures make the business side of things worthwhile. Whereas the cinema itself only covers its own costs, the Beach Film Festival makes enough in a week with its ¥1,500 (€12) entry fee to cover all the Cinema Caravan’s expenses for a whole year.
Yet the team is constantly looking for new ideas to bring in extra cash. For the past three years Nagashima has organised the Ikego Forest Music Festival: a two-day event on the outskirts of town in a former US military accommodation zone. Amigo Market is another case in point. When the bakery next to the cinema closed, the trio took it over and turned it into a place where punters can sip coffee or stock up on essentials, from vegetables to washing-up liquid.
The newest addition is Amigo Inn: a one-room hotel in the similarly angular building next to Cinema Amigo. Both structures were designed by Nagashima’s father, an architect also behind parts of Yokohama’s city planning. The building used to house his studio until he retired earlier in the year; that’s when Nagashima took his first steps into hospitality. “It’s compact but personal,” he says, showing us around the two-level loft, filled with light streaming in from pine-framed triangular windows. “And it helps financially.” In its first summer the Inn was booked for the whole season. Most people who stay are either foreign visitors or former Zushi residents who no longer have a home here but miss the town’s breezy atmosphere.
Whether it’s because of Zushi and its natural setting or all the effort that the Amigo team have put into creating a cultural calendar for the city, more people are either moving back to – or moving into – town. “There are a number of people who have chosen to have children here but keep their jobs in Tokyo,” says Nagashima. “DJs who have come here have discovered the city and become locals, so there’s a new-generation community.” Sometimes it’s the small things that have the biggest pull.