21st-century Japantown: VIZ Cinema launches Saturday, Aug. 15, with "20th Century Boys: Beginning of the End."

Seiji Horibuchi on VIZ Cinema

Michael Fox August 8, 2009

The opening of a new theater that isn’t a multiplex is an exceedingly rare event these days. Raise a glass to VIZ Cinema, a built-from-scratch venue located in the New People building in Japantown. The complex, opening Sat., Aug. 15, is dedicated to Japanese pop culture, from art to fashion to film. VIZ Cinema fills the bill with live-action movies and anime, highlighted by U.S. premieres, director retrospectives and special series. A free outdoor screening of Kamikaze Girls in the Japantown Peace Plaza Friday night, Aug. 14, launches the New People scene, while VIZ Cinema christens its downstairs screen the next night with 20th Century Boys: Beginning of the End. Seiji Horibuchi, founder and chairman of VIZ Media, offered his thoughts on the new venture via email.

SF360: What was the impetus for VIZ Cinema? Was a theater part of the original conception of New People?

Seiji Horibuchi: Yes, the cinema part has been a core idea from the beginning of the New People project. We launched a film company called VIZ Pictures in 2005, more than 20 years after I founded VIZ as a manga publisher. My intention was to expand the variety of Japanese cultural genres available to an American audience. This would be done first with the films, and now with all of the additional aspects that New People offers. [When] we launched VIZ Pictures, I had a chance to visit the 100-year-old building which used to be owned by a Japanese American newspaper company (Hokubei Mainich) and was for sale. When previewing the property, I found the building had a huge basement with a very high ceiling. I was struck with the idea of creating a nice movie theater in the space. The space would also be the home base of VIZ Pictures, and a place where Japanese film and anime lovers can hang out. As a movie distributor, I always face the challenge of finding suitable venues to show our films on the big screen, so it made sense for New People to have a means to show our movies in San Francisco, where the market for independent and alternative film is the second largest in the country.

SF360: Tell us about the theater’s technical specs.

Horibuchi: VIZ Cinema is a THX-certified theatre with 143 seats featuring 35mm film projection and HD digital video projection. The interior design was done by local architect Jay Adams, who has designed offices for us since I founded VIZ back in the ’80s. We took him to Tokyo and he designed the theatre walls to mimic the city lights of Tokyo. We have colorful and comfortable seats imported from Europe and a variety of Japanese snacks and confections for sale. The theatre will also be available for screenings, lectures, conferences, presentations and a variety of other special events.

SF360: What is your programming philosophy for VIZ Cinema?

Horibuchi: We’d like to provide as many genres of Japanese cinema as possible and each month we’ll present a different theme. The theme for August is ‘Manga Attack!’ and will feature live-action movies that are based on manga (Japanese comics) as well as anime features also based on popular manga series. The 20th Century Boys trilogy is based on a bestselling sci-fi epic and will be the first films we screen. Our first anime event will be Bleach the Movie: The Diamond Dust Rebellion on Aug. 18 and 19 for two nights only.

SF360: Do you see VIZ Cinema filling an existing void for fans of anime and new Japanese cinema—a niche venue, in other words—or a means of expanding the general audience for these kind of films? What’s your strategy for accomplishing this?

Horibuchi: With the experience of being a distributor of anime and Japanese live-action films, a niche genre in this country, we feel that forming a community is the most important and effective way to reach our audience. Fortunately, our audience, which includes anime/manga and foreign filmgoers, is very intellectually enthusiastic, generously open-minded and filled with a cosmopolitan spirit. These fans are also very active online. We hope to take advantage of the Internet as a key means to keep fans aware of what’s happening at VIZ Cinema and New People. Our fans, established ones as well as new ones, will be the crucial factor to our success. We want to show them our gratitude by providing a great movie experience in a great venue. Besides regular anime programming, we also plan to have events such as DVD release parties for our latest film releases.

Reaching out to a mainstream audience, who may not be familiar with anime or Japanese film, is important for us. We are already in discussions with several local film/art/cultural organizations to host events and screenings, and they are also actively marketing online to reach out to their targeted fans and members.

SF360: VIZ Cinema will open 20th Century Boys: Redemption, the third film in the trilogy, the same day (Aug. 28) it opens in Japan. Can we look forward to simultaneous premieres on a regular basis? Is San Francisco the only American city where such a strategy could be attempted?

Horibuchi: It’s often very difficult to show brand new movies simultaneously both in Japan and the U.S. due to licensing issues. Premiering the last chapter of 20th Century Boys is a rare case, and we had the flexibility to do that because we’re also the U.S. distributor of the film. We will do as much as possible to bring the latest films from Japan and present them in an intimate theatrical setting that is shared by similar-minded fans. We hope to build a real community this way.

Our goal for New People and VIZ Cinema is ultimately to provide a gateway for people to become interested in what’s happening in Japan in the 21st century and also the rest of the world outside the U.S. I cannot think [of a] better place in the U.S. than San Francisco to make this a reality.

SF360: Tell us about your business model. Do you require consistent attendance to keep the venue operating, like a stand-alone theater, or do you view VIZ Cinema as an accessory or attraction of New People?

Horibuchi: The cinema is not just a feature or accessory of the building, it’s the heart of the New People experience! We take our cinema business very seriously, just like a stand-alone theatre, but a key advantage is that we have a stable fan base and a background as a film distributor so we’ll be able to do things in this venue that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The cinema business is a new challenge, but we believe we will achieve something new that traditional theatres haven’t done before, and that is to put the films in a larger cultural context that can be explored in the same location. This venture obviously requires a lot of time and effort but that’s also our difference. And that’s very Japanese.

SF360: Looking beyond August, what’s on tap?

Horibuchi: The September program is themed ‘Life = Art’ with a lineup focusing on several Japanese modern artists, including the U.S. premiere of Sorasoi by Katsuhito Ishii, the popular director of The Taste of Tea. Also scheduled is Fine, Totally Fine directed by Yosuke Fujita (New York Asian Film Festival Audience Award winner) and a regional premiere of Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers, directed by Daihachi Yoshida. Besides live-action movies, we also have a week-long run of a documentary film featuring world renowned Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama called I Love Me and a one-night-only screening event of Yoshitomo Nara’s Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara.

Our bimonthly anime series, Weeknight Anime People, will screen the popular sci-fi anime feature Gurren Lagann: The Movie by Hiroyuki Imaishi Sept. 8 and 9, and a special Shojo Beat Anime Night featuring Nana Sept. 16 and Honey and Clover Sept. 23.

SF360: How would you summarize your goals for VIZ Cinema? And where does the cinema fit with home video?

Horibuchi: Kamikaze Girls, which we distributed in 2005, is the film which made me seriously consider starting a film business like VIZ Pictures. But the whole idea of starting a film company had been in my mind long before. When I founded VIZ Communications in 1986, we were the first publishing company in the U.S. specializing in English-translated manga. Fortunately, VIZ grew up quickly, thanks to the support of millions of U.S. fans of manga and anime. I want to start something new again, this time with movies for the manga/anime generation who grew up with VIZ.

With VIZ Pictures, we are trying to open a whole new genre, which we call ‘J-Pop Cinema.’ It’s a genre full of Japan’s ‘pop-ness,’ ‘cute-ness’ and ‘cool-ness,’ and many of the films are based on popular Japanese comics, novels and anime. But we also distribute other mainstream movies like Linda Linda Linda, The Taste of Tea and Hula Girls to showcase people’s lives in Japan. We aim to deliver a bright and positive message about the Japan of the 21st century and want to establish J-Pop Cinema as one of the most exciting genres in film today. Other Japanese movie genres like horror and samurai/ninja-action movies have firmly established themselves in the American market, but I hope to do something new. We carefully select movies which represent J-Pop aesthetic, and that’s a key difference.

As a movie distributor, I have to [acknowledge] the greater potential growth of the home entertainment business, especially online digital delivery. But an experience at a movie theater is always priceless, and we complement this in a big way with a complex filled with four floors of the latest fashion, retail offerings, trends and pop art from Japan. We look forward to visitors experiencing the Japan of the 21st Century through New People.

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