Mami Kanda

Tokyo, Japan

My “Older Brothers”

The place where I learned how to project films for the first time was not a cinema, but the film lab/post-production company IMAGICA, where I worked part-time in the very last year of university. Actually I majored in photography, as I’m not really good at working in a team, as filmmaking typically requires. Even though I was into movies, by nature I prefer working by myself. I continued working there in the same company in their film projection section after graduation. At the film lab, you’re under more pressure during the film screening, because the cinematographer might be right there in person in the preview room.

One tense moment in those days did not go well. To make things worse, a person from the distribution company asked me to come out from the booth and explain a simple but fatal mistake in front of the audience. My excuse seemed to be incoherent or at least did not give them a good impression, and ended up causing a bit of confusion there. Public speaking is not my thing, and that was a very uncomfortable, traumatic experience. I felt so down and worried – was working in the isolated booth preventing me becoming a mature person?

The small joys I get from a perfect operation (precise focus, smooth change-over etc.) are not to be shared with anyone else. No matter how critical the print condition is or how much time it took for preparation, the audience has no way of knowing it. Especially as the last reel is wheeling towards the end, I feel lonely, but I do not dislike the feeling. Loneliness in the booth is more like a fight against myself to keep my concentration to the end of the film. Right after operation, if some other staff members come to visit me in the booth, the conversation is a little unnatural, as if I'm still in my own world. The audience does not have any effect on me, but when the film's theme is about something cheerful, it might have a good effect on me.

I quit the lab when I got married, but didn’t quit for that reason. The reason I quit was more to do with my projection mistakes, and because I wanted to leave the dark booth to be in the light. I needed it. But for some reason I went back to being a projectionist. Nowadays I’m more confident in the booth and not so tense. Probably because of my experience, I can deal with the loneliness in the booth without any problem, and I can keep my mind stable, even relaxed.

I have been working as a projectionist on a freelance basis since then, but realised that even though I used to be constantly in such a tense situation where no mistakes were allowed, at the same time I was protected by the company somehow. In contrast, I am totally independent now. At the moment, I work in various places such as the Kawasaki City Museum, Cine-café Soto and the Japan Foundation. KCM has one of the public film archives in Japan, so still shows mainly 35mm and 16mm. They do not even use metallic tapes as the automatic changeover cues. I like their way – it’s totally old-school. Soto is a café-restaurant with screenings. That kind of style is not rare, but they have a 35mm platter projection system, which is something special. I work mainly in the kitchen behind the counter, but sometimes help the owner to operate the projector. The Japan Foundation is another job I really enjoy. I inspect their distribution prints. Other than these three places, I drive from one booth to another for film festivals and special screenings as needed. And I have found my role visiting projectionists in Japan and collecting their voices.

Watching me busily working in the booth, people say it looks too serious or even crazy as I check so many times if the print is properly prepared and everything is perfectly ready. I want to avoid operating the projector if the film was prepared by somebody else, as to be honest I cannot rely on it 100%. Besides, the size and the shape of the film loop would not really be mine. If it is my first time in a particular booth, or when I operate projectors I’ve never operated before, then I try to find out the best shape of the loop. If it is a booth I often work in then I keep the same shape of the loop. The shape of the loop when you set a print is more to do with the perfection. It makes me feel confident if it is set the same as before, to prevent any unexpected troubles. A projectionist I know takes the same route to his job every day so that he can keep the same kind of mentality every time, to avoid careless mistakes. Another says he goes into the booth right foot first, which might give you a strange impression, but I understand that way of thinking.

Obviously I am a film lover but one of my friends, Yosuke Nagayoshi, who is involved in a campaign to save the film equipment at Ginrei Hall, a repertory cinema in Tokyo, taught me the charm of projectors, too. I usually do not name them, but I would say at least “hello” to greet them at the start of the day. They are like older brothers, working together with me. Two projectors are a set, but each one has a different character: not one personality but two, which reminds me of brothers. Why not sisters? I don't know . . . but they are like two imaginary brothers. They remind me of factory workers: my parents used to run a small metal-processing factory and hired young workers, and as a kid I liked the machinery they operated and their smell of machine oil. I rely on them, respect them, and really like them. I rarely talk to projectors other than to say “hi”, but I often stroke them.

Recently I got a little emotional when my favourite projectors, Fuji Central, were replaced by Kinotones at KCM. Fuji Central are known as “Fujisen”. They look really human-made. They have a strong and beautiful form. And the company originally produced combat aircraft during the war, but afterwards they shifted from munitions to the film industry. So I like this part of the company's history, too. I would not say I do not like Kinotone. They are great, but too great to be close friends. Sometimes old domestic projectors are replaced with Kinotone, even though they are still usable. That is very sad. The shape of the Kinotone projector is a kind of square box and Fuji Central have more of a round-shaped design and are more easily humanised. And the motor noise is more like a living thing. Kinotone is more computerised, so less human in comparison. It is more fun to work with Fuji Central. But maybe I should learn about Kinotone’s history now.

I once belonged to a film projectionists’ organisation, which usually sent projectionists in pairs on demand. Usually the other person was one of those veteran projectionists much older than I, and the stories I got through conversations with them were just fascinating. That is why I set up my Kakiotoshi Project a few years ago to interview projectionists all over Japan. “Ka-ki-o-to-shi” means “the movement or mechanism of a claw pulling the film” but it also sounds similar to "Ka-ki-o-ko-shi", which means “transcript” or “dictation”, usually after interviews or oral histories. I have visited many cinemas and have accumulated the oral histories of nine projectionists so far, which I will publish one by one like a ’zine of about twenty pages or so at a few hundred yen (a few dollars), and get them bound as a book eventually. It is like a race though, as so many cinemas are closing down. I really would like to record their voices with photos, and share them with others. In that way, more people might discover the wonder of film culture, and going to the cinema. That is my hope.

Networking with younger film projectionists – not necessarily full-time – is another activity. About twenty-five Tokyo-based projectionists gather twice a year and exchange information. Through my job, if I find a cinema owner throwing away their projectors just because they are out of condition and he or she does not know anybody who can do maintenance, I introduce somebody suitable within my network, and sometimes succeed in changing the owner’s mind.

If a younger person comes to me to ask me to teach them how to project films, I would love to do so, but I have to tell them it will never pay their way anymore. I’m not an aggressive type, and cannot be outspoken, but I just do what I can, even those tiny little things, but important things, because I would like this precious cinema culture to survive as long as possible. It can’t be replaced by anything else.

Our thanks to Kae Ishihara of the Film Preservation Society in Tokyo who interviewed Mami Kanda for this vignette and also translated it.

December 2013

© copyright caboose 2013

Mami Kanda is a film projectionist based in Tokyo. After working at a film lab/post production company in Japan, IMAGICA, she went freelance. In addition to film festivals and special screenings, her main booths are in the Kawasaki City Museum and Cine-café Soto. She also initiated the Japanese film projectionists’ interview project with the aim of publishing it in book form.

Mami Kanda in the booth with Cine-café Soto’s 35mm projector, the Fuji Central F-V300 (the Kawasaki City Museum used to use the same type). Photo by Ryo Ishikawa.
A 16mm film screening at Cine-café Soto. Photo by Ryo Ishikawa.
My favourite projector, the Royal Model L, produced by Komitz, installed in a theatre in Fukushima, where carbon arc is still used. Photo by Mami Kanda.
Another of my favourite projectors, Fuji Central F-71, installed in the theatre in Nagano. The hand-written sign reads “Do Make Sure”. Photo by Mami Kanda.
Home movie day at Cine-café Soto. Photo by Mami Kanda.