The romance of the silver screen is one that never fades. Cinema has long been in love with itself, wilfully trapped inside the nostalgia of its own origins and youthful glory days. Nevertheless, we love it too and it’s a rare film fan who can resist the allure of the golden age backlot. With Tonight, at the Movies (今夜、ロマンス劇場で, Konya, Romansu Gekijo de, AKA Color Me True) Hideki Takeuchi becomes the latest in a long line of directors including Koki Mitani and Yoji Yamada to pay homage to world of classic Japanese cinema only this time he opts for a double rainbow as his eternal dreamer hero laments the loss of ‘30s glamour in the declining movie world of 1960 while his older self looks back on the bygone pleasures of his youth.
In 1960, Kenji (Kentaro Sakaguchi) is an assistant director at Kyoei film studios. Well, AD is what it says on his payslip, but Kenji is a mild mannered sort who mostly ends up doing odd jobs like ferrying props around and painting backdrops, mostly because he’s too much of a soft touch to push for anything else. The shy and beautiful daughter of the studio chief, Toko Naruse (Tsubasa Honda) – note the name, has fallen for him, but Kenji only has eyes for the silver screen. He spends his evenings at the local rep cinema “Romance Theatre” where he watches the daily programme and then bribes the owner (Akira Emoto) to make use of the projection booth after hours to watch his favourite forgotten classic, “The Tomboy Princess and the Jolly Beasts”. After a freak lightning strike and power outage, Kenji is shocked to discover that Miyuki (Haruka Ayase), the Tomboy Princess herself, has escaped from the silver screen and ventured into the Technicolor world.
After opening within the world of the film within the film, Takeuchi hops us forward to the contemporary era of cellphones and an ageing society as a kindly nurse laments that no one ever seems to come and see her favourite patient, Mr. Makino (Go Kato), except his granddaughter who everyone agrees is unnecessarily cold towards him. Makino is something of a key name in Japanese movie history having belonged to Shozo Makino who is often regarded as the father of Japanese cinema, and to his son Masahiro who was best known for his jidaigeki but also for his love of song and dance as seen in such cheerful hits as Singing Lovebirds which seems to have in part inspired the brief musical number in The Tomboy Princess sung by her Jolly Beasts in true ‘30s style. As we assume, Mr. Makino is Kenji 50 years later though we quickly realise that he was not able to live up to the promise of his name and never became the top film director of his dreams.
This is (partly) because we meet Kenji at what is really the beginning of an end. By 1960, the golden age was drawing to a close and studios were beginning to feel the heat from the growing popularity of television. In 10 years time, Kenji’s studio will no longer exist and the industry will have undergone a series of seismic shifts that will forever change the cinematic landscape. Yet even now Kenji is looking back rather than forwards – he worships the world of twenty years previously with its cheerful if nonsensical musical adventures and most particularly that of the Tomboy Princess who dares to rebel against her destiny by leaving her life of comfort behind to seek adventure in a foreign land, ours.
As the voice over from the melancholy rep cinema manager reminds us, film is fleeting but even forgotten films have the magical power to bring colour to someone’s heart. Both Kenji and the cinema manager have a deep seated reverence for movie making and feel almost sorry for the myriad films lying dormant in rusty cans waiting for someone to find them. The heroine of just such a film, Miyuki in turn is a lonely cinema ghost whose era has long since passed.
In Kenji she has finally found an adoring audience though the pair remain separated by an invisible screen even as their fated romance proceeds along the expected lines. Taken as metaphor, Kenji’s all encompassing obsession with a character from an old movie is not especially healthy and later leads him to reject the possibility of a full and conventional romance with a woman who loves him as well as give up on his dreams of movie making. He has, in a sense, decided to marry “cinema” with all the questionable aspects of that decision. In this case, however, “cinema” has taken real physical form even if that form is not available to him physically. Kenji and Miyuki remain on two sides of an invisible screen, but it is clear that the love flows both ways and, perhaps crucially, causes them both pain in their inability to exist fully within the same physical space.
Filled with a wealth of references to cinema classics from Japan and beyond, Tonight, at the Movies is a beautiful fairytale romance well worthy of its cinematic pedigree. Cinema is a theoretical paradox where permanence and impermanence meet thanks to the magic of the movies. Nostalgia may be a trap, but it’s a beautiful one to fall into.
Tonight, at the Movies was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.
Original trailer (no subtitles)