Did you have a favorite movie theater growing up? Maybe it had a comfy, well-worn seat you liked, a classic marquee, or a buttery popcorn smell in the air that triggered instant joy. Is the theater still open?

When director Hideyuki Tokigawa visited Hawai‘i for the HIFF premiere of his newest film, Cinema Angel, which tells the story of Hiroshima’s 122-year-old Daikokuza Theater closing, he heard a lot of these stories.

“People told me that there were many great cinemas in Honolulu before, but now many of them are gone,” he said via email from Japan.

In Cinema Angel—which screens at the Doris Duke Theatre on Jan. 25, 27, and 28— the facts of Daikokuza’s closure blur with the stories projected on its screen, à la Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. The titular “angel,” an anachronistically old man (pictured above) who suddenly appears for the theater’s final days, embodies Tokigawa’s fantastical touch.

For some island residents, the “angel” might spark memories of Captain Hale‘iwa (aka airline pilot Richard Rogers), the masked man in a pink cape who crusaded to save the Hale‘iwa Theatre from being demolished in 1983. (Unfortunately his superpowers failed and a McDonald’s now stands in the theater’s place.)

Tokigawa, at any rate, hopes local audiences will find connections like these—and forge new connections with existing theaters (maybe even Doris Duke Theatre!). He took some time last week to explain why these spaces are becoming more and more important to him as a filmmaker, and why they (should) matter to all of us.

Where are you from and how did you get into filmmaking?
I grew up in Hiroshima, and I liked movies when I was a boy. My interest in film started at 10 years old. Then when I was in university, I wanted to see how much I could do in filmmaking, so I went to Vancouver Film School. Then by actually studying film I found that I really love making films. But in Japan you have to be an assistant director for a long time to be a film director. So I decide to go a different way. I went to Singapore to work for Discovery Channel where I could use and grow my skills. It was a great experience to work with young talented creators in a multicultural situation.

Then I moved back to Tokyo, and I started to work for Shunji Iwai, who is one of the great film directors in Japan. He showed me what a film director is. I learned a lot from him.

Then for about 10 years I tried to make films, but no one noticed me or helped me. One day I realized that I just have to do it to prove that I can make a film. My friend asked me to make a short film with a small budget. So I took the opportunity to make a first feature film, Radio Love, with that small amount of money. Then I became a film director.

What motivated you to write and direct Cinema Angel? Do you have a personal connection to the story and theater?
The Daikokuza Theater showed my first feature film, and I visited for a stage greeting there. I became friends with people working there at the time. They came to me when they decided to close the theater, and they were crying in the meeting. I understood how they felt about the theater, so I wanted to do something. My answer was making a movie about the theater. I think we had a strong and clear motivation for the film. It wasn’t for the money or fame—it was for the theater and people who loved the it. Everyone shared the feeling in film crew and the cast. I think that was very important to this film.


Left: The Japanese poster for ‘Cinema Angel.’ | Right: Director Hideyuki Tokigawa

Why did you decide to use fiction to re-tell the story?
I talked to theater staff and customers and I heard many interesting things, dialogue, and events, so I put them into the story. I changed a bit to make it into fantasy, so people can enjoy watching it, rather than seeing a sad documentary about a closing cinema. It’s a fiction, but the essence of cinema is real. The emotion is real, I think. 

Films like this seem important at this time, when people are watching films in more private settings, through the Internet. Is Cinema Angel also a commentary on society and technology?
It’s great to have more choices to watch films. But watching movies in a movie theater is the best—it’s a special experience. Sometimes we experience wanting to be a character in the film. Sometimes a film changes our life. Those things happen in movie theaters—not on the Internet. Because we have many choices now, we need to know how we should experience movies in the right way.

What kinds of reactions have you received as you show the film around the world?
People react almost the same way, every place has the same feeling. They all have had a theater disappear, and everyone loves cinema.

What do you hope audiences take away from the viewing experience?
I hope this film recalls your best memory of your favorite movie theater and movies. Since making this movie, I have enjoyed going to movie theaters more than before. So I hope it happens to you, too.