Tonight, at the Movies (今夜、ロマンス劇場で, Hideki Takeuchi, 2018)

Tonight, at the Movies posterThe 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)

Narratage (ナラタージュ, Isao Yukisada, 2017)

Narratge poster 1Isao Yukisada made his name with the jun-ai landmark Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World back in 2004. Adapted from a best selling novel (which had also been adapted as a TV drama around the same time), Crying Out Love was the epitome of a short lived genre in which melancholy, lovelorn and lonely middle-aged heroes looked back on the lost love of their youths. Jun-ai has never really gone away though it might not be so popular as it once was, but the focus has perhaps shifted and in an unexpected direction. Narratage (ナラタージュ), once again adapted from a best selling novel though this time one by an author still in her early 20s when the book was written (incidentally smack in the middle of the jun-ai boom), is another sad story of frustrated love though in contrast to the jun-ai norm, its tragedies revolve around loves which were tested and subsequently failed, leaving the broken hearted romantics trapped within their own tiny bubbles of nostalgia.

The heroine, Izumi (Kasumi Arimura), narrates her tale from three distinct periods of her young life speaking from the perspective of her still young self now living as a lonely office worker. A lonely high school misfit, she found herself drawn to a sensitive teacher, Hayama (Jun Matsumoto), who rescued her from despair through an invitation to join the drama club. Relying on him ever more, she began regularly visiting his office for guidance and the pair bonded over their shared love of cinema. On graduation Izumi decided to declare her love, but earned a sad story in return and resolved to move on with her life. Then in the second year of university, she gets an unexpected phone call, calling her back to help out with a play at the school’s culture festival.

Yukisada begins with a rather unsubtle metaphor in which the older Izumi lovingly fondles an antique pocket watch which has long since stopped ticking. 20-something Izumi apparently has very little in her life, a pang of melancholy envy passing her face as she talks to a friend on the phone at home with a new baby while she prepares for another lonely night of (unnecessary) overtime. Where the heroes of jun-ai obsess over true love lost, Izumi struggles to face the fact that the man she loved did not, could not, love her in the way that she wanted him to. There is, of course, something deeply inappropriate in the awkward relationship between Izumi and Hayama who are a teenage student and her teacher respectively – connect as they might, there are moments when a line is crossed even while Izumi is still a schoolgirl which is in no way justified by the presentation of their (non)romance as a natural consequence of their mutual suffering.

Hayama and Izumi are presented as equals but they aren’t and never could be. As if to continue the chain, university era Izumi gets a love confession of her own from old classmate Ono (Kentaro Sakaguchi) who has apparently been carrying a torch for her all this time. Ono’s love, like Izumi’s, is originally generous and altruistic – he understands her unrequited affection for Hayama and perhaps even sympathises, but once Izumi decides to try and make things work with someone who loves her it all starts to go wrong. Ono is jealous, possessive, desperate. He demands to inspect her phone, insists she erase Hayama from her mind and devote herself only to him. Izumi, sadly, goes along with all of this, even when her attempts to turn to Ono for protection when afraid and alone are petulantly refused. When the inevitable happens and she decides to try and sort things out with Hayama, Ono tries to exert an authority he doesn’t really have, ordering her to bow to him (literally), and harping on about all the hard work he personally has put into their relationship which, he feels, she doesn’t really appreciate while berating her for not really loving him enough. As it turns out, neither of Izumi’s romantic options is particularly healthy or indeed viable.

At one particularly unsubtle moment, Izumi (alone) attends a screening of Naruse’s Floating Clouds – another film about a couple who fail to move on from a failed love affair though their struggle is ultimately more about the vagaries of the post-war world than it is about impossible love. Meanwhile the school play is to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is also about misplaced and unrequited loves which spontaneously sort themselves out thanks to some fairy magic and a night in a confusing forest. No magic powers are going to sort out Izumi’s broken heart for her. Like the pocket watch, her heart has stopped ticking and her romantic outlook appears to be arrested at the schoolgirl level. She and Hayama maybe equally damaged people who save and damn each other in equal measure, but the central messages seem to be that difficult, complicated, and unresolved loves and the obsessive sadness they entail produce nothing more than inescapable chains of loneliness. Simplistic as it may be, Izumi at least is beginning to find the strength to set time moving once again prompted perhaps by another incoming bout of possibly requitable love lingering on the horizon.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Golden Orchestra! (オケ老人!, Toru Hosokawa, 2016)

ƒIƒP˜Vl_ƒeƒBƒU[ƒ`ƒ‰ƒV•1C³_ƒAƒEƒg‚È‚µIt might never be too late to follow your dreams, but if following your dreams makes you very unhappy perhaps you need to spend some more time figuring out what they are. Golden Orchestra (オケ老人!,  Oke Rojin!) is one in a long line of Japanese fish out of water / underdog comedies, but addresses some very contemporary concerns from the ageing society to a perceived loss of community in the face of soulless commercialism. Our stuck-up school teacher is about to learn a few lessons, chief among them being that it’s much better just having fun with nice people than being caught up in a vicious and unwinnable game of elitism with a bunch of permanently scowling snobs.

20-something school teacher Chizuru (Anne Watanabe) harbours a longstanding dream of playing in an orchestra but gave up the violin when she got a job. A visit to a classical music concert in provincial Umegaoka reignites her musical passion and she quickly becomes determined to dust off her instrument and ask for an audition. However, as she was so excited she can’t quite remember the orchestra’s name and, assuming there couldn’t be two in this tiny town, signs up for the wrong one. Only realising her mistake when a bunch of old people turn up instead of the well turned out collection of musicians she was expecting, Chizuru tries to back out but the old people are so happy to have her that she can’t quite work up the courage to tell them no.

As it happens there’s a People’s Front of Judea situation going on between Ume-sym and Ume-phil. The conductor of Ume-sym, Nonomura (Takashi Sasano), is also the owner of a family-run electronics shop – a relic of a bygone era made all the more lonely by the flashy electronics superstore that’s been set up right next door. The owner of the electronics superstore, Osawa (Ken Mitsuishi), used to be a member of Ume-sym but stormed out to form his own orchestra – Ume-phil, so he’s betrayed Nonomura twice over and there’s bad blood between them which isn’t helped by Osawa’s constant overtures to Nonomura’s son about buying up the shop in order to close it down.

Chizuru is, it has to be said, a somewhat clueless woman approaching middle age who is also a bit of a snob. She’s harboured musical dreams ever since she can remember, giving them up because, after all, that’s what you’re supposed to do in order to accept a conventional, ordered life. If playing music was all she wanted to do, there was nothing stopping her doing it at home in her free time, but Chizuru wants to be among the best. She looks down on the old people in the orchestra – firstly because they’re “old” and therefore “bothersome” (as she notes turning off a tap left running by an absent-minded older lady), and then because they’re just not any good, and finally because their aim isn’t really becoming a successful orchestra so much as it is participating in a community activity. The old ladies have brought snacks which must be indulged and appreciated, while the old men all enjoy the after practice drinking sessions perhaps more than they do the music.

Turning her back on this anarchic friendliness, Chizuru practices night and day to get into Ume-phil, but Ume-phil isn’t about love of music either, it’s just about being superior and giving yourself an excuse to look down on people. Chizuru finds out for herself how stressful and unpleasant it can be as a “member” of just such a community when they grudgingly grant her a spot. Ume-phil runs on a survival of the fittest policy – not everyone gets to play, only whoever is deemed most worthy. When push comes to shove, Osawa buys himself success by hiring a world-famous French conductor for the biggest concert of the year. Only the professional conductor is true music lover and quickly quits Osawa’s ersatz orchestra, charmed by the down-home wisdom of Mr. Nonomura who manages to fix his treasured cassette player when Osawa advised him to throw it out and buy something more up-to-date. Some people just can’t see what’s really important.

As expected, Chizuru finally realises that it’s just much nicer (not to mention less stressful) having fun making music with the old people rather than putting up with the soulless rigour of the Osawa brigade for whom nothing will ever be good enough. In the end Ume-sym decides to practice Dvorak’s Largo which is, as anyone who’s seen a Japanese film knows, an instantly warm and nostalgic tune familiar as the inspiration for (in some cities at least) Japan’s five ‘o clock chimes (British viewers may well experience the same surge of wistful melancholy thanks to the same tune’s iconic use in a series of Hovis adverts from the ‘70s and ‘80s). It’s an apt choice for a film which harks back to a simpler time when people took care of each other and rejoiced in ordinary pleasures like home-made pickles and fixing things that were broken rather than throwing them out to buy new ones. In true community spirit, it’s not so much that one side wins and another loses, so much as that the joy of sharing a dream with others becomes infectious, producing a rapprochement between the old and the new which allows a peaceful coexistence of the two. Cosy cinema at its finest, Golden Orchestra may not offer anything new to a well-worn formula but in many ways that is the point and its harmonious charms prove hard to resist.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The original Hovis ad from 1973 (which was directed by Ridley Scott)

The Kodai Family (高台家の人々, Masato Hijikata, 2016)

kodai family posterFear of “broadcasting” is a classic symptom of psychosis, but supposing there really was someone who could hear all your thoughts as clearly as if you’d spoken them aloud, how would that make you feel? The shy daydreamer at the centre of The Kodai Family (高台家の人々, Kodaike no Hitobito) is about to find out as she becomes embroiled in a very real fairytale with a handsome prince whose lifelong ability to read minds has made him wary of trying to form genuine connections with ordinary people. Walls come down only to jump back up again when the full implications become apparent but there are taller walls to climb than that of discomfort with intimacy including snobby mothers and class based insecurities.

29-year-old Kie (Haruka Ayase) has a dull job as a regular OL in the successful Kodai company. A self-confessed shy person who finds it difficult to talk, Kei spends most of her time alone though she does have a few friends at work. Though Kei’s exterior life may appear dull she has a rich, even overactive imagination which she uses to entertain herself by heading off into wild flights of fancy guided only by a friendly (?) gnome.

Kei’s life begins to change when the oldest son of the Kodai family returns to the office after studying abroad. Mitsumasa (Takumi Saito) is a handsome, if sad-looking man who quickly has all of the office in a flurry of excitement thanks to his dashing good looks and confident stride. Mitsumasa, however, has a secret – the ability to read other people’s thoughts inherited from his British grandmother, Anne. Whilst walking down the corridor and trying to ignore the lewd and avaricious thoughts of some of the ladies (and the worried ones of some of the men now fearing more than one kind of competition), Mitsumasa is treated to one of Kei’s amusing fantasies and is quickly smitten.

For Kei who finds voicing her true feelings difficult, Mitsumasa’s ability seems like the perfect solution. Finally, someone who will just understand her without the need for conversation. However, what Kei hasn’t considered is that a deeper level of intimacy is being asked of her than she’d previously anticipated. From the merely embarrassing to the tactless and tasteless, it is no longer possible to withhold any part of herself other than by an exhausting process of trying to close her mind down completely. Mitsumasa is used to this particular phenomenon in which his enhanced powers of communication only result in additional barriers to connection. Somewhat closed off himself, resigned to the fact he’s going to “overhear” things he’d rather not know, Mitsumasa has made a point of keeping himself aloof from ordinary people who, once they know about his abilities, find him suspicious and threatening.

Yet Mitsumasa’s telepathic powers are not the only obstruction in this fairytale love story. Kei already can’t quite believe what’s happening is real and struggles with the idea someone like Mitsumasa might seriously be interested in her. Though Mitsumasa’s brother (Shotaro Mamiya) and sister (Kiko Mizuhara), who share his ability, are broadly supportive (and equally entertained by Kei’s innocent and quirky flights of fancy), his mother (Mao Daichi) is anything but. Kei’s prospective mother-in-law starts as she means to go on by mistaking Kei for a new maid and then proceeding to further erode her confidence by pointing out that she knows nothing about this upper class world of balls and tennis and horse riding.

When it all becomes too much, Kei does what she always does – retreats to safer ground. Papering over her cowardice with the weak justification that she thinks she’ll only make Mitsumasa miserable, Kei backs away from the idea of baring her whole, unfiltered soul even if she knows it will cost her the man she loves and the ending to her real life fairytale.

Though charming enough and filled with interesting manga-inspired effects, Kodai Family never makes the most of its interesting premise, falling back on standard romantic comedy tropes from parental disapproval to predictable misunderstandings. The irony is that Mitsumasa and his siblings are so busy listening to the thoughts of others that they often can’t hear their own and are so deep in denial that they need a third-party (telepathic or not) to push them into realising how it is they really feel. This is a world of double insulation, in which the walls are both thick and thin, but there is a way a through for those brave enough to kick them down by baring all for love, snobby mothers be damned.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Love Story!! (俺物語!!, Hayato Kawai, 2015)

my-love-storyThey say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but for some guys you’ll have to do a whole lot of baking. Based on the popular manga which was also recently adapted into a hit anime (as is the current trend) My Love Story!! (俺物語!!, Ore Monogatari!!) is the classic tale of innocent young love between a pretty young girl and her strapping suitor only both of them are too reticent and have too many issues to be able to come round to the idea that their feelings may actually be requited after all. This is going to be a long courtship but faint heart never won fair maiden.

Takeo (Ryohei Suzuki) has been best friends with next-door neighbour Suna (Kentaro Sakaguchi) ever since they were small and he made a point of becoming his defender when Suna was the new kid in town and the other boys made fun of him. However, Taeko is a big lug of a guy, adored by the his male classmates for his off the charts level of coolness, but often shunned by the ladies thanks to his impulsive nature and booming voice. Suna, by contrast, is massively popular and finds himself surrounded by swooning girls everywhere he goes. Being the big hearted guy he is, when Takeo notices his middle school crush confessing her love to Suna on graduation day, he makes sure Suna lets her down gentle and chooses to break his own heart instead.

You see, being the big guy is not exactly easy. A little slow on the uptake but also extremely sensitive, Takeo has been hearing gorilla jokes his whole life and so has internalised an intense feeling of being completely unloveable. Despite this, he remains an extremely good person who just wants everyone else to be happy even if he’s convinced himself he’s not allowed to be. Thus when he saves timid high school girl Rinko (Mei Nagano) from a persistent street harasser and falls in love at first sight, it doesn’t really occur to him that the same thing might have happened to her. Mistaking Rinko’s attempts to get his attention for a backhanded way to get to his more conventionally handsome friend, Takeo resolves to get the two together no matter what!

It would be difficult to find a romance quite as innocent as My Love Story!! which (successfully) strings out one wilful misunderstanding for around two hours. There are no great scenes of jealous exes or sudden arranged marriages to contend with, just two people entirely incapable of speaking plainly. Takeo is so invested in the idea of his own ugliness that it just doesn’t make sense to him that anyone would choose him over the conventionally handsome Suna. Likewise Rinko is quite a timid girl, bowled over by the cool way Takeo dealt with her street harasser and subsequent acts of heroism throughout the film. Though her friends may crack gorilla jokes behind her back, Rinko can see straight through to Takeo’s giant heart and is always ready to defend him, even if her own diffidence means she can’t just tell Takeo how she really feels in a way he understands.

Meanwhile, Suna is very bored by all of these missed messages as his well meaning buddy tries to foist the girl he himself loves on his obviously disinterested friend. As for why Suna is so disinterested, the film is also a somewhat coy. A little shy and awkward himself, Suna is uncomfortable with all the attention his ridiculous good looks bring him, as well as additional resentment from the other guys and often needing to deflect praise for Takeo’s heroism which people often seem to attribute to him. It may just be that Suna is over the superficial and is waiting for someone to see past his pretty boy face but his refusal to talk about the kind of girl he likes aside from going for “big and strong” perhaps hints at an altogether different reason. In any case, Suna getting fed up with being persistantly gooseberried becomes the final catalyst for finally explaining to Takeo what exactly has been going on these past few months.

Before you know it, enough baked goods to feed a small army have been consumed but Takeo is still having trouble realising that they each had a secret ingredient – love! Sometimes nice guys do get the girl, even if it involves shielding them from a falling coffin in a haunted house that’s on fire which is not as good of a metaphor as you’d think but it’ll do for now. Old fashioned and innocent, My Love Story isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it might just light a flame in your heart.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Her Granddaughter (娚の一生, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2015)

Her GranddaughterRyuichi Hiroki has one of the most varied back catalogues of any Japanese director currently working. After getting his start in pink films and then moving into V-Cinema, Hiroki came to prominence with 2003’s Vibrator – an erotically charged exploration of modern alienation, but recent years have also proved him adept at gentle character drama. Her Granddaughter (娚の一生, Otoko no Isshou), though coming with its own degree of strangeness, is another venture into the world of peaceful, if complicated, adult romance.

Tsugumi, a still youngish woman with a good job in IT in Tokyo returns to her rural hometown to look after her ailing grandmother. When her grandmother unfortunately passes on, Tsugumi inherits her house and begins to consider not going back to her old life but staying and taking over her grandmother’s hand dyed fabric business.

Feeling a little alone after the funeral, she’s shocked to encounter a slightly abrasive older man who apparently has a key to the annex given to him by the grandmother. Confused, Tsugumi can’t exactly throw him out (much as she’d like to), but gradually the two start to form a tentative relationship.

Her Granddaughter is indeed based on a best selling manga by Keiko Nishi, which might go some distance to explaining some of its more unusual plot elements. Though in essence it’s a fairly innocent tale of May to September love between a lonely, unfulfilled young woman looking for a simpler way of life, and a sensitive if difficult older man with a complicated past, there’s more to it than that. Specifically, the grandma problem. The question whether or not to pursue a man who may have previously dated your grandmother, is not one that many young women will be faced with.

Tsugumi herself is obviously grief stricken after her grandmother’s death and has also left a messy situation behind her in Tokyo. The lack of desire to return may be partly to do with this same unresolved question, though the idea of a slower, more traditional way of life obviously appeals to her. Even when the possibly ex-boyfriend of her grandmother, Kaieda, abruptly moves in, she reverts to classic gender roles by doing his washing and cooking for him, expecting him to perform the more “manly” tasks like chopping wood and making sure the fire is in for the bath. According to her friend visiting from Tokyo, this is something Tsugumi tends to do which marks her as a little out of step with her more progressive city friends.

Kaieda is an outwardly abrasive, chain smoking philosophy professor who appears to be nursing a life long broken heart. He aims for a classically cool persona with his affected ennui yet, despite his gruffness, he is a pretty good judge of character able to nudge people in the direction they should be heading but might be about to miss such as when a gauche local politician with a longstanding crush on Tsugumi might be about to accidentally rebuff the attentions of a shy but pretty girl from the municipal office who is clearly interested in him.

A later scene sees Kaieda and Tsugumi becoming a temporary family with a little boy mysteriously dropped on their doorstep. Kaieda often harshly indicates to the boy that his mother has abandoned him and won’t be coming back. Lonely childhoods of rejected children become something of a running theme as the resultant certainly of abandonment leaves each of our now adult protagonists looking for a premature exit from any potentially serious relationship. For all his aloof exterior, Kaieda is sensitive soul, though one easily read after discovering the key to all his insecurities.

One of Hiroki’s softer efforts, Her Granddaughter is nevertheless a warm and gentle character driven romantic tale. Full of beautiful country landscapes and refreshing summer breezes, the circularity of all things comes to the fore as Tsugumi in some senses becomes her grandmother and sees herself in the sad little boy as he climbs on a stool to wind a clock just as she had done in her own childhood. An interesting, resolutely old fashioned tale of modern romance which, though shrouded in several taboos neatly side steps them and encourages us to do the same, Her Granddaughter is a gentle gem from Hiroki which proves rich both in terms of theme and of emotion.


English subtitled trailer: