What is a “real movie” anyway? Kiyoshi’s Kurosawa’s “Wife of a Spy,” which premiered on public broadcaster NHK’s 8K service in June of last year? Ryuichi Hiroki’s “Ride or Die,” which dropped on Netflix last April? Or Yuki Tanada’s “Cinematic Liars of Asahi-za,” a heartwarming drama first aired by Fukushima Central Television last October?

Purists who regard content made for the small screen as “not cinema” by definition might say “none of the above.” But the first two titles are, in style and treatment, indistinguishable from their makers’ past theatrical films. By contrast, Tanada’s latest, with its broad-stroke performances, folksy humor and teary melodrama, ticks the boxes for TV-friendly entertainment, as does its dialogue-heavy story that anyone can easily follow while sorting their laundry. But is it a “TV movie”? Not quite — and not only because it is getting a theatrical release.

Tanada wrote the original script, which centers on the struggle to save a failing theater in Minamisoma, a town in Fukushima Prefecture rocked by the triple disaster that hit northeastern Japan in March 2011. In her past output — “One Million Yen Girl” (2008), “Round Trip Heart” (2015) and “Romance Doll” (2020) — the characters were more complex, the sense of humor was drier and the endings less certain. This new film sees Tanada operating at an audience-pleasing cruising speed, not cinematic full throttle.

Cinematic Liars of Asahi-za (Hama no Asahi no Usotsukidomo To)
Run Time 114 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Sept. 10

Her never-say-die protagonist, Asahi Hamano (Mitsuki Takahata), comes across a portly, gray-haired man about to burn cans of film in front of the aforementioned theater, the Asahi-za. Horrified, she stops him and learns that he is the manager. Named Yasuzo Morita (Kyotaro Yanagiya), he is the grandson of the man who first opened the theater nearly 100 years ago. “Corona finished us,” he tells her, though attendance had been falling for years.

Not wanting to reveal her true identity, she introduces herself as “Mogi Riko” (Riko Mogi in Western order), which means “ticket collector.” A film buff — she swiftly clocks that a strip of celluloid he was about to set alight is from the 1920 silent classic “Way Down East” — she decides to save the theater, over Yasuzo’s strenuous objections. One obstacle: Yasuzo has agreed to sell the theater to a developer, who plans to tear it down and build a bathhouse. Another: He is in debt to the developer to the tune of ¥4.5 million, though he has yet to sign a contract.

In the office of the excitable real estate agent (Masahiro Koumoto) who has arranged the deal, Asahi spins the story that she is Yasuzo’s distant relative and has a familial interest in the theater’s survival. Yasuzo doesn’t call her on this fib, so she knows that, in his heart of hearts, he wants to save the Asahi-za, too. She suggests a crowdfunding campaign.

If this were all, the story would be simple indeed, since by an iron law of feel-good films such campaigns can never fail. But the movie soon segues to a lengthy backstory about Asahi’s troubled past, from her vexed relationship with her businessman father (Ken Mitsuishi) to her tight bond with a frank-talking high school teacher (Kayoko Okubo), who took her in when, as a teen, she quit school and left home. A fatal illness and a good cry over life’s cruel fragility are also part of the mix.

Boosted by some of the best character actors in the business, especially the always excellent Okubo, the film never devolves into typical TV drama bathos. And Asahi’s taste in films, with the work of comedy master Masaharu Segawa a favorite, is flawless. Come to shed a tear — and add new titles to your must-see movie list.

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