'Tonight, at the Movies' ('Konya, Romansu Gekijo de'): Film Review

Courtesy of the Tonight, at the Movies Production Committee
A romance on, and about, the reels.

Japanese A-listers Haruka Ayase and Kentaro Sakaguchi star in Hideki Takeuchi's 1960-set romance about a young filmmaker and the princess who emerges from a movie and into the real world.

"A movie is fleeting — only a few stick in people's minds," proclaims a cinema owner in Hideki Takeuchi's Tonight, at the Movies. It's not hard to guess the Japanese helmer's unforgettables. This fantastical-comical romantic drama about an onscreen princess's relationship with a young man in the real world draws on staples like Enchanted, Roman Holiday and My Sassy Girl. In the context of Japanese cinema, however, it’s the heir to The Magic Hour, Koki Mitani's 2008 period comedy that pays homage to the joys and perils of old-school filmmaking.

Boasting a classically overwrought romance, a black-and-white film-within-a-film, wry references to people and places in the history of Japanese cinema, and plenty of scenes depicting the workings of a bustling movie studio — not to mention a cast led by Japanese screen royalty Haruka Ayase (Our Little Sister) and rising star Kentaro Sakaguchi (The 100th Love With You) — Tonight is an unabashed celebration of the emotional power of moving pictures.

Its mix of simple emotions, showy imagery (Ayase wears some 25 outfits in the film) and starry-eyed representation of the film industry took Tonight, at the Movies to the top of the Japanese box office on its opening weekend in February on the eve of Valentine's Day. (It was replaced the following week by The Greatest Showman, demonstrating how Japanese audiences are spellbound by show business.) Financed by Warner Bros.' Japanese arm, the film has had surprisingly few takers outside the country. It opened in Hong Kong under the title Color Me True on April 12.

Unlike Enchanted, Tonight's fairytale princess appears the first time in monochrome. In the film's prologue, Miyuki (Ayase) is revealed to be a character in The Tomboy Princess and the Three Jolly Beasts, an old black-and-white movie charting the titular heroine's Alice In Wonderland-like adventures. A projectionist rewinds the film and locks the reels in a cupboard, where they remain for decades, forgotten by theater owners and audiences who have moved on to more scintillating silver screen fads.

Cut to the present, where an ailing old man (Go Kato) is sitting alone in a hospital bed with nothing but an old, unfinished screenplay for company. He tells its story to a curious nurse (Anna Ishibashi): set in a film studio and theater in 1960, it's about a struggling assistant director called Kenji (Sakaguchi) and his habit of going to a small downtown cinema every evening to watch the same old movie and revive his spirits, sapped by his fumbling performance at work.

That very movie, of course, is The Tomboy Princess, in which the major attraction forKenji is the beautiful and headstrong heroine Miyuki. When a power outage interrupts a screening, his dream seems to come true and he finds the princess propelled from the screen into the real world. Delighted to find her looking just like in the movie, he soon discovers she also behaves like her haughty onscreen self. She treats him as her servant, forcing him to accommodate her whims, needs and curiosity about a world she is seeing the first time in color.

Unsurprisingly, love quickly blossoms, but complications arise as Kenji is forced to contend with the affections of his boss's daughter Toko (Tsubasa Honda), who holds the key to his aspirations to become a full-fledged filmmaker. This, and her own challenges in surviving in the mortal realm, make Miyuki leave Kenji — a moment that transforms Tonight from quirky comedy into an all-out tear-jerking romance, complete with a twist and a final chapter outlining Kenji's life to the present day.

The film is much less whimsical and sprawling than Takeuchi's Thermae Romae film series, in which a (Japanese-speaking) Roman bathhouse architect journeys between 2nd century Rome and 21st century Tokyo, securing the love of a Japanese manga writer in the process. Bolstered by a more intimate if sometimes logically flawed screenplay and lush production values, Tonight offers small but solid pleasures that might rekindle interest in cinema from a younger generation.

Production companies: Filmmakers, Fuji TV Network, Horipro
Cast: Haruka Ayase, Kentaro Sakaguchi, Tsubasa Honda, Go Kato
Director: Hideki Takeuchi
Screenwriter: Keisuke Uyama
Producers: Juichi Uehara, Miyoshi Kikuchi
Executive producers: Takashi Ishihara, Yoshitaka Hori
Director of photography: Hideo Yamamoto
Production designer: Mitsuo Harada, Takuya Okada
Costume designer: Masa Miyamoto
Music: Norihito Sumitomo
Editing: Hiroshi Masuo
Sales: Pony Canyon International Licensing
In Japanese
108 minutes