Despite it’s image of neon lights and cyberpunk mystique propagated by the west, Tokyo is very much a mash-up of old and new. It’s a city where Tower Records is still alive and well. Where vinyl record and vintage clothing shops have to employ crowd control measures. And where a hand-written letter sent by FAX machine still holds value. So it was no surprise when we heard that a VHS cafe was opening in Tokyo.
Located in Shimokitazawa, a Tokyo neighborhood known for its bohemian vibe, the VHS cafe Tan Pen Ton opens today, October 12, 2023. The brainchild of film directors Kentaro Hayashi and Kenta Suzuki, the cafe has aspirations to become a place where filmmakers and film-lovers can gather and bond over the craft of moving images.
But the membership-driven cafe is not just a throwback to the 70s and 80s. Keen on connecting new filmmakers with new audiences, the founders decided to focus on short films, a medium that is both easier to create and easier to consume. The idea is that anyone can drop in at anytime and enjoy a snack or beverage while taking in short film from somewhere around the world all in the span of 10-15 minutes. The concept is embodied in the name of the cafe: tan pen (短編) means ‘short film’ while ton (屯) means to ‘gather’ or ‘assemble.’
the cafe’s membership card is shaped like a cassette tape
But why VHS tapes, you might wonder. The reason is the same that has been attracting music lovers back to vinyl records or CDs. In an era of algorithmic playlists, music becomes muzak. The act of listening becomes passive, commoditizing and diminishing the value of the art itself.
By giving form to film in the shape of VHS tapes, everything about the process of watching a film becomes more thoughtful and important. You have to physically select a tape and insert it into the tape player, turn on the television, then hit the play button. These forgotten rituals will once again become common practice at Tan Pen Ton.