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)

Sekigahara (関ヶ原, Masato Harada, 2017)

Sekigahara posterWhen considering a before and an after, you’d be hard pressed to find a moment as perfectly situated as the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原). Taking place on 21st October 1600 (by the Western calendar), Sekigahara came at the end of a long and drawn out process of consolidation and finally ended the Sengoku (or “warring states”) era, paving the way for the modern concept of “Japan” as a distinct and unified nation. In actuality there were three unifiers of Japan – the first being Oda Nobunaga who brought much of Japan under his control before being betrayed by one of his own retainers. The second, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, continued Oda’s work and died a peaceful death leaving a son too young behind him which created a power vacuum and paved the way for our third and final creator of the modern Japanese state – Tokugawa Ieyasu whose dynasty would last 260 years encompassing the lengthy period of isolation that was finally ended by the tall black ships and some gunboat diplomacy.

Loosely, we begin our tale towards the end of the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Kenichi Takito) though, in a nod to the novel, director Masato Harada includes a temporal framing sequence in which our author depicts himself as a boy during another war sitting in these same halls and hearing stories of heroes past. As well he might given where he was sitting, the narrator reframes his tale – our hero is not the eventual victor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, but a noble hearted retainer of the Toyotomi, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada).

Riding into battle, Mitsunari reminds his men that this is a war of “justice and injustice” – they cannot lose. Yet lose they do. The narrator recounts Mitsunari’s improbable rise as an orphan taken in by Hideyoshi on a whim who nevertheless became one of the most powerful men in late 16th century Japan. Despite his loyalty to his master, Mitsunari cannot abide the cruelty of the samurai world or its various modes of oppression both in terms of social class and even in terms of gender. He resents the subversion of samurai ethics to facilitate “politics” and longs to restore honour, justice, and fairness to a world ruled by chaos. Rather than the bloody uncertainty and self-centred politicking that define his era, Mitsunari hopes to enshrine these values as the guiding principles of his nation.

On the other hand, his opponent, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho) is famed for his intelligence and particularly for his political skill. Hoping to swoop into the spot vacated by Hideyoshi which his young son Hideyori is too weak to occupy, Ieyasu has been playing a long game of winning alliances and disrupting those other candidates had assumed they had secured. Unlike Mitsunari, Ieyasu is ruthless and prepared to sacrifice all to win his hand, caring little for honour or justice or true human feeling.

The framing sequence now seems a little more pointed. Sekigahara becomes a turning point not just of political but ideological consolidation in which Mitsunari’s ideas of just rule and compassionate fair mindedness creating order from chaos are relegated to the romantic past while self interest triumphs in the rule of soulless politickers which, it seems, travels on through the ages to find its zenith in the age of militarism. Mitsunari is the last good man, prepared to die for his ideals but equally prepared to live for them. His tragedy is romantic in the grander sense but also in the more obvious one in that his innate honour code will not let him act on the love he feels for a poor girl displaced from Iga whose ninja service becomes invaluable to his plan. With a wife and children to consider, he would not commit the “injustice” of creating a concubine but dreams of one day, after all this is over, resigning his name and position and travelling to foreign lands with the woman he loves at his side.

Working on a scale unseen since the age of Kurosawa, Harada patiently lays the groundwork before condensing the six hours of battle to forty minutes of fury. The contrast between the purity of the past and the muddied future is once again thrown into stark relief in the vastly different strategies of Ieyasu and Mitsunari with Ieyasu’s troops armed to the teeth with modernity – they fire muskets and shout cannon commands in Portuguese while Mitsunari’s veteran warriors attempt to face them with only their pikes and wooden shields. Unable to adapt to “modern” warfare and trusting too deeply in the loyalty of his comrades, Mitsunari’s final blow comes not by will but by chance as a young and inexperienced vassal vacillates until his men make his decision for him, betraying an alliance he may have wished (in his heart) to maintain. Goodness dies a bloody death, but there is peace at last even if it comes at a price. That price, for some at least, may have been too great.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tsubaki Sanjuro (椿三十郎, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2007)

Tsubaki Sanjiro horizontalGenerally speaking, where a film has been inspired by already existing source material, it’s unfair to refer to it as a “remake” even if there has been an iconic previous adaptation. That said, in the case of Tsubaki Sanjuro (椿三十郎), “remake” is very much at the heart of the idea as the film uses the exact same script as the massively influential 1962 version directed by Akira Kurosawa which also starred his muse Toshiro Mifune. Director Yoshimitsu Morita is less interested in returning to the story’s novelistic roots than he is in engaging with Kurosawa’s cinematic legacy.

Sanjuro is a more populist offering from Kurosawa in any case and adheres to a fairly simple plot which picks up with the hero of the previous year’s Yojimbo, still a wandering ronin living on his wits and his sword. In actuality the script was altered a little to connect the two films even though the original novel has nothing to do with Yojimbo. Anyway, the story is set in a small town in which the hotheaded young men have got a bee in their bonnets about corruption at the higher levels and have taken it upon themselves to do something about it. Unfortunately they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into and are about to make things even worse. Sanjuro duly arrives, overhears their idiocy and gives them some advice before heroically saving all their lives through cleverness. Later, when one of the young men’s relatives is kidnapped, Sanjuro decides to stay and help them sort this giant mess out before they do themselves a mischief.

Obviously, Morita uses the same script so Tsubaki Sanjuro has exactly the same plot as the 1962 film. This does lend it a slightly uncanny quality as its use of language and the structure of the script itself are much more of their own time – a fact brought out by the very theatrical performances of the only two female faces in the film who speak in very pointed and deliberate manners. That said, what Morita attempts to do is bring out even more of the ironic, dark comedy that underpins Kurosawa’s film but is very much played as background. Morita isn’t playing it as farce or as parody, but brings the same wry, almost mocking eye to the proceedings as he brings to to his contemporary satirical comedies.

Bayside Shakedown star Yuji Oda is cast in the role of Sanjuro but really of course he’s expected to play Mifune. He doesn’t have Mifune’s sheer presence and force of personality – who does? but he does a good job of adopting his wiseguy, casual grifter with a sentimental heart persona. We don’t know who Sanjuro is – he gives what is fairly obvious to be a fake name and seems to be a masterless swordsman content to travel in rags and live on the “kindess” of strangers, but you get the feeling he’s already got it all figured out and always knows the best way to handle any situation no matter how desperate it might seem.

If what Morita is trying to do is make a modern Kurosawa movie, he somewhat succeeds. Though he throws in the odd homage to the Kurosawa corpus, mostly he opts for a contemporary approach though one with an old fashioned kind of stateliness – no handheld camera here, wide and tracking shots rule the day. The score too remains in the classical jidaigeki realm with obvious call outs to Sanjuro’s own western leaning themes.

Morita himself can be something of a chameleon in the director’s chair, his style isn’t so personally defined but tailored to the project itself which can make him seem a little dull where he isn’t trying to add a layer of experimentation which is the thing which really interests him. Tsubaki Sanjuro’s experimentation is closer to mirroring – he’s not doing a Gus Van Sant Psycho style experiment, but he’s refracting Kurosawa for a modern audience raised on TV drama and idol stars. It works, to be sure, but perhaps it worked better for Kurosawa (unfair as that is to say).

Ultimately, Tsubaki Sanjuro is something of a curate’s egg. As it is intended to, the film has its generic sides in its fairly ordinary modern samurai movie aesthetic, though it never overplays these and cleverly adds in a more modern approach with a perfectly matched subtlety. Its cast of young men skew younger than in the original film making their naivety even more believable and lending weight to Oda’s performance which captures both his character’s gruff aloofness and his instant born leader abilities. Enjoyable enough in its own right, Tsubaki Sanjuro can’t reach the heights of the film which inspired it, but then perhaps it is not intended to, but simply to entertain with a familiar tale retold as broad comedy rather than mild satire.


Available with English subtitles on region free DVD in the US from Bonzai Media Corp. RSP

Unsubtitled trailer: