Although movie theaters are increasingly becoming things of the past in rural areas across Japan, there are still those who have a strong passion for providing entertainment on the big screen for local moviegoers.

Such is the case with Hiroaki Wada, 34, a movie buff who moved from Tokyo to Masuda in the western Japan prefecture of Shimane, where he was able to resurrect a small theater two years ago in a quiet town that had been without one for 14 years.

Photo taken Jan. 18, 2024, shows Hiroaki Wada, director of Shimane Cinema Onozawa, in Masuda, Shimane Prefecture, western Japan. (Kyodo)

Despite a harsh business climate, Wada's desire to support the cultural hub of the 43,500-strong city has only deepened.

"It will make me happy if people get to view all sorts of movies here," said Wada, who by opening his new establishment has brought the number of theaters to three in the whole of Shimane -- among the fewest of Japan's 47 prefectures.

According to the Japan Community Cinema Center, the number of movie theaters in the country dropped from 887 in 2002 to 590 in 2022.

Only about 20 percent of the country's cities, towns and villages have movie theaters, and most are found in large urban areas. Nearly half of the total is concentrated in the three largest metropolitan areas centering on Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.

On the whole, Japan's film and movie theater industries are on an uptick, having almost recovered to pre-pandemic levels thanks to the popularity of hit animation movies like "The First Slam Dunk" and "The Super Mario Bros. Movie."

The Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan has said the country's box-office revenue in 2023 rose 3.9 percent from the previous year to 221.4 billion yen ($1.5 billion), while the number of movie-theater-goers climbed 2.3 percent to 155.5 million.

The total number of theater screens nationwide increased by 19 to 3,653 after new multiplexes opened in populous areas such as Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo in Hokkaido, contributing to the strong results.

In recent years, smaller cities serving as regional hubs have begun installing their own multiplexes, with many being set up in large-scale commercial complexes. But the opening of a new theater like the one Wada operates is a rare sight these days.

Photo taken on Jan. 18, 2024, shows Shimane Cinema Onozawa in Masuda, Shimane Prefecture, western Japan. (Kyodo)

Screening mainly Japanese films, his 200-seat capacity mini-theater Shimane Cinema Onozawa has a hall with an historical air, and is of great value to the local community given that so many parts of the country are going without such facilities.

Wada attributes the downfall of regional movie theaters in recent decades mainly to Netflix and other streaming services capturing a younger demographic of entertainment seekers.

"With the spread of Netflix and other services, fewer people are coming to theaters to watch movies. Other than that, I think the cost of maintaining the facilities is also a factor," he said.

Shimane Prefecture is long and narrow, stretching 230 kilometers from east to west along the Sea of Japan. In 2008, Digital Theater Masuda Chuo, the last remaining movie theater in Masuda, closed down, leaving the western part of the prefecture without any at all.

Anyone from the area wishing to go to the movies had to take the time to travel to neighboring Hiroshima, to the southwest, or other prefectures by car or train.

Wada, from Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, learned of the movie theater's closure in Shimane in 2018. At the time, he was managing Cinema Chupki Tabata, a mini-theater in Tokyo. Chupki is known as Japan's first "universally accessible theater," with audio guidance and subtitles for those with visual or hearing impairments.

Seira Kanda, 36, a grandson of the founder of Digital Theater Masuda Chuo, coincidentally attended Chupki's workshop on creating audio guide scripts, where he became acquainted with Wada's wife, Sarasa, 40, a native of Masuda.

They got talking after Kanda explained that he wanted to "bring back movie culture" to Masuda while reminiscing about the films he used to go to see as a child at the Masuda Chuo theater with his family, such as "Princess Mononoke" and "Titanic."

After leaving his job with Chupki in 2020 and with Sarasa having become pregnant, Wada and his wife decided to move to Masuda.

Through establishing a joint venture company and crowdfunding, Wada was able to restore the theater at the location where Digital Theater Masuda Chuo used to be.

Photo taken on Jan. 17, 2024, shows Hiroaki Wada (L), director of Shimane Cinema Onozawa, and his wife Sarasa in Masuda, Shimane Prefecture, western Japan. (Kyodo)

Celebrating the second anniversary since its reopening, Wada recalled that at first, he thought the movie house could survive on low-budget films, B-movies and documentaries. But under current business conditions, he said, "We have to rely on major productions to survive." He makes ends meet by doing audio guide work in his spare time.

Whenever he watches a film, he is drawn in by the lives of the people portrayed on screen. Watching films in a movie theater, Wada says, allows him to grasp the various subtleties.

"Films are part of the town's culture and I want to keep protecting this," Wada said.