Cinema on the planet

006 – Mariko Tsujimoto

Silent Movie Theatre on Holy Night



Crisp, clear winter sky, the changing color of trees along the street and twinkling illumination all around. December is the most beautiful month of all in Tokyo. About this time when people start wearing wool coats, I check out the schedule for “Silent Movie Theatre on Holy Night,” an annual silent film screening with piano accompaniment which started back in 2006. It’s a special winter event.


The screening is held at Hongo Central Church on Kasuga street. The church was originally built in 1890, originally as Hongo’s Central Public Hall. After burning down in a fire during the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, the church was rebuilt in its current state in 1929. The stone Gothic architecture of the structure is now designated as a Registered Tangible Cultural Property. The church is also featured in Soseki Natsume’s novel Sanshiro, written in 1908.


I received a Christian education growing up. Every morning I would attend religious services before class. Even though I am not a religious person, going to church makes me feel nostalgic so I always look for any chance to go inside one for screenings or concerts. I first found out about this event from a flyer I picked up at some movie theater and went for the first time in 2010 (the 4th screening) . Since then it has become one of my favorite screening events to attend.


Going up the stairs from the foyer decorated with a Christmas tree, you see the chapel on the second floor. Audience members browse movie-related vintage books from pop-up booksellers or warm up by drinking mulled wine while waiting for the film to start. The vintage booksellers come from all over Tokyo, bringing specially curated books that match with what is screening each night. It’s so convenient and I’ve bought many books here that I will cherish for a long time.


In the chapel the piano sits right by the screen. The stove warms up the space.


The wooden chairs are well worn from the passing of time and cast a warm amber glow.


The first screening I attended back in 2010 was 7th Heaven (Dir. Frank Borzage/1927). It was also my first time seeing the silent film pianist, Ms. Mie Yanashita. The piano performance was played not only for the opening sequence and climactic scenes but all throughout the entire film. In the dark, Yanashita alternated looking at the score lit by a tiny light and the screen to match the timing through to the end. Without creating too much drama, her piano gently accompanied the story. It was amazing to see her focus to play during the whole film. What a romantic occupation it must be, that of the silent film pianist!


7th Heaven has a main theme unlike most of the films of that time. The soprano in an evening dress sang the main theme from the choir balcony of the chapel. With this presentation the audience had a chance to experience something of the silent era: the richness of a live piano or orchestra creating an aural world for the film’s silent images. It was a pure luxury. On that day I brought a friend who usually doesn’t watch classic film but who joined me out of curiosity for the location and uniqueness of the event. Witnessing someone experiencing silent film for the first time brought me such joy.


The most memorable screening for me at “Silent Movie Theatre on Holy Night” was Way Down East (Dir. D.W. Griffith/1920) in 2011, the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake. After going through a hardship beyond reason, the heroine faints on an ice drift before being rescued. With no stunt double, the actress Lillian Gish resolutely lies on the ice, her figure frail but brave – I was overwhelmed with emotion watching this film that starts with tragedy and ends with salvation, at the end of a tremendously sad year.


In 2015, the 9th “Silent Movie Theatre on Holy Night” screening was moved from its regular location at Hongo Central Church to Nezu Church.


Located very close to Nezu Shrine, is a single-story wooden building with a gabled roof. It is also used for local events like Tatekawa-school Rakugo performances and concerts.


Nanook of the North (Dir. Robert Joseph Flaherty) was screened that night. The film came out in 1922 but was shot in 1919 which happens to be the same year Nezu Church was built, a fact pointed out to us as they introduced the screening. This valuable documentary records the daily life of Inuit people in Canada.


Since there was no projection room in the church, a projector was placed in the back of the chapel. The sound of the clucking projector echoed throughout the small room, creating an even more intimate mood than other silent film screenings.


The 10th screening event in 2016 returned to Hongo Central Church. The film they screened was THE THREE AGES (Dir. Buster Keaton/1923).


This was my first time back to Hongo Central Church in 2 years and this time I discovered a grand pipe organ on the second floor. When the church was first built in 1890, an organist from Wales was invited to play the large reed organ that was modified into the first pipe organ in Japan. Unfortunately, this organ was lost along with the church during the Great Kanto earthquake fire. A reed organ was installed later, but with continuous effort a new pipe organ was built and finally introduced again in 2016.


This is the new pipe organ. It came from a church in the same Welsh town as the organist who played the first pipe organ before it was destroyed in the fire. It’s such a curious episode of synchronicity that transcends time.


In his book A Cultural History of Movie Theater and Spectator, Mikiro Kato illustrates how churches and movie theaters share a high affinity. Churches were converted into movie theaters when demand for permanent movie theaters (called Nickelodeons) increased as the popularity of movies rapidly spread. In reciprocal fashion, drive-in theaters were often used as a space for preaching to audiences waiting for a night time screening.


It might sound silly coming from someone without any religious belief but I see the structural similarity between churches and movie theaters: rows of chairs placed in the same direction towards altar and screen. Spending time in this layout, perhaps we find ourselves more ready to believe in images we see, words we listen to, music played and stories told.


In Soseki Natsume’s novel Sanshiro, the heroine Mineko attends Hongo Central Church and when Sanshiro waits for her outside there is a sentence that goes like this:


“Suddenly the church door opened. People came out, returning from Paradise to the fleeting world of Men.”


It could also be said about me, leaving movie theaters to go back to my daily routine.


After the “Silent Movie Theatre on Holy Night” screening, I usually would go home walking through the University of Tokyo Hongo campus, cooling off my head reeling in excitement from watching a movie. This stroll extended this feeling of being in heaven a little longer. It was around the time in Tokyo when the gingko trees change color at their peak. 


The old Western architecture as old as that of the church, and a carpet of golden gingko leaves surrounded me.


I was looking forward to seeing which film they would play for this year’s “Silent Movie Theatre on Holy Night.” But unfortunately, earlier this past summer, it was announced that the 10th screening in 2016 was its last event. In the season when the temperature goes down and people start to wear wool coats, I would continue to look for the schedule, a hard habit to break. I hope to see a film at Hongo Central Church once again someday.


To everyone in every country or town, I wish you a wonderful December.




Hongo Central Church

37-9 3cho-me Hongo Bunkyo Tokyo




Nezu Church

19-6 1cho-me Nezu Bunkyo Tokyo


東京大学 本郷キャンパス


University of Tokyo Hongo Campus

3-1 7cho-me Hongo Bunkyo Tokyo

Special thanks to

Mie Yanashita

text & photo

Cinema Studio 28 Tokyo 主宰


Mariko Tsujimoto
Owner of Cinema Studio 28 Tokyo

When I was a child I repeatedly watched Chaplin films, but as I become an adult,
I turned to be a fan of cute and stylish Buster Keaton instead.
I’d like to see Keaton films with piano accompaniment by Ms. Mie Yanashita, again.

english translation

Cinema Studio 28 Tokyo Los Angeles branch


A few years ago, Mariko took me to the screening with
Ms. Mie Yanashita’s piano accompaniment.
It was a rare chance to see John Ford film in Japan,
and on top of that, with a live piano! It’s one of my best film memories.