Tonight, At The Movies (Kon’ya, romansu gekijô de)

Japan (2018) Dir. Hideki Takeuchi

We’ve all done it – seen a character in a film and forgetting they are not real, succumbed to hopeless romantic fantasies between them and ourselves, refusing to accept the impossibility of this escapist delusion actually becoming reality. But what if it did?

An elderly hospital patient (Go Kato) clings to an old unfinished screenplay he wrote many years ago entitled Romance Theatre that never got made into a film. Young nurse Yoshikawa (Anna Ishibashi) asks the patient to tell her the story. Set in 1960, it features Kenji Makino (Kentaro Sakaguchi) an assistant director working for Kohei film studios.

Every night Kenji goes to his local cinema and watches an old black and white film The Tomboy Princess and the Three Jolly Beasts as he is in love with the heroine, Princess Miyuki (Haruka Ayase). Learning the owner Honda (Akira Emoto) is selling the film, Kenji watches it one last time, but a heavy storm causes a power cut. When power is restored, Kenji is shocked to see Miyuki right there in the cinema – in living black and white!

Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose Of Cairo has a similar premise, except his black and white character is colour in the real world, making Tonight, At The Movies – also known as Colour Me True – more a reverse Pleasantville. Partly a whimsical romantic fantasy, it’s also director Hideki Takeuchi’s love letter to cinema and its power to enchant.

It won’t seem like it from the opening act with its slapstick comedy and fish out of water culture clash but the second half of this film is a straight up tearjerker that will have many blubbering like babies. Don’t let that put you off if your interest in this film is the cute meta premise, the transition is smooth, fitting in with the parallel themes of love and cinema.

The film opens cold with five minutes of The Tomboy Princess, faithfully recreating Japanese cinema of old, before panning back to reveal we are watching the same film as Kenji in the cinema. The 1960’s scenes are resplendent with bold prime colours jarring against a muted veneer contrasted by the sterility of the modern day hospital, the setting of the final act via an easy to read twist.

Whilst Miyuki’s radiance is everything Kenji imagined, her attitude is less than appealing – after all she is a tomboy princess. The headstrong royal appoints lowly commoner Kenji as her servant and treats everything as her own plaything which causes immense havoc, but as time goes on a mutual affection grows between them as Miyuki embraces the wonder of the colourful world – except she knows she and Kenji can never be.

Adding further heartache is the obligatory love triangle. Kenji is blissfully unaware Toko Naruse (Tsubasa Honda), the daughter of Kohei’s boss, is in love with him. She becomes jealous of Miyuki, who insists she and Kenji are not an item, only to realise that Kenji reciprocating Toko’s affection would fast track his dream of becoming a director. Dare she stand in his way despite her love for him?

The slushy romance over takes the comedy from this point forward, heading towards a crushing climax to break the hardest of hearts. Yet, as much as this film is also a tribute to the magic of cinema, the script from Keisuke Uyama takes a few satirical swipes at the politics of the old studio system, like the fawning around self-absorbed actor Ryunosuke Shundo (Kazuki Kitamura) which borders on parody.

In taking a meta approach, an interesting paradox about Miyuki arises. She confesses to choosing to escape her “world” as it was boring for her repeatedly to do the same thing. But if Miyuki is a fictional character, what about the actress playing her? This suggests The Tomboy Princess may not have been as successful to make her enough of a star otherwise everyone at Kohei studios in 1960 would recognise her, which they don’t.

Granted it is a fantasy so we are supposed to ignore such cavils and it is fortunate that the performances are enjoyable and the script is solid enough to distract our cynical minds for the duration. That Kenji is every film fan who allowed themselves that moment of weakness in allowing themselves to be seduced by a romantic ideal is a clever hook that also serves as metaphor for cinema’s hold over us as a medium.

Kenji is remarkably pure as a film fan, an aspiring director and as a paramour for Miyuki. He doesn’t try to win her over with clumsy romantic gestures, let alone take advantage of her – not that she’d let him, being the feisty type – he simply shares his life with her and nature does the rest. This nobility is a lasting trait of Kenji’s and the script cleverly uses the central conceit of Miyuki’s inexplicable presence to address this.

Making Miyuki brash and capricious sets her aside from the usual “princess” persona, the inevitable thawing out of her haughty personality effectively redefining her character. Miyuki’s monochrome appearance is a startlingly effective piece of editing trickery even if it is straightforward to achieve, the blending of her with the coloured backgrounds and characters being absolutely flawless.

Kentaro Sakaguchi manages to keep Kenji likeable and relatable, if perhaps a little weak on occasion but with Haruka Ayase opposite him that is understandable. Even with chanbara film Ichi to her credit, Ayase has rarely been this feisty yet maintains her natural poise and grace as Miyuki. Tsubasa Honda isn’t given much to work with as the hastily sketched Toko, while Go Kato is masterful in the final act.

Tonight, At The Movies juggles a lot of balls content wise, keeping enough in the air that the sentiment feels genuine. Some might find the emotional drama of the denouement overly slushy but it is an undeniably and fittingly poignant way to close this enchanting paean to cinema.