I can’t claim any unique insight into the mind of the Japanese film producer, but it seems a safe bet that “The Invitation to Cinema Orion” was adapted to screens in the wake of the huge popular and critical success of “Always: Sunset on Third Street”. While not a copy, “Orion” has a thematic similarity in that its main story, told in flashback, is set at a post-war, pre-TV Kyoto neighborhood, specifically a movie theater (the Orion of the title). “Orion” also utilizes that most reliable of Japanese box-office staples, the critical illness. And that’s where the comparisons to “Always” fall apart. “Always” is sentimental and melodramatic, but (and this isn’t a spoiler in any meaningful way) is almost relentlessly positive. Heartbreak is followed by triumph, or at very least a warm meal among people who care about you. “Orion” has the caring part, but you’d be hard pressed to find a happy ending.
The film opens in modern-day Kyoto with two couples. The first, Tomekichi and Toyo (Yoshio Harada and Hitomi Nakehara), are physically apart owing to Toyo’s hospitalization. The film opens with Tomekichi writing invitations for the Orion’s final show, then visiting Toyo in the hospital where he gets her prognosis—one he’s expecting, but not prepared for. The second, Yuji and Yoshie (Tomorowo Taguchi and Kanako Higuchi), have barely sat down at a café when Yoshie asks for a divorce. They are physically together, but emotionally distant. (Yuji’s response to this news indicates that it’s not entirely unexpected: he calmly changes his drink order from coffee to beer.) But shortly after asking to end their marriage, Yoshie makes another request—would Yuji accompany her to Cinema Orion, which she just learned is closing its doors after over 5 decades? She’s just received their invitation, and is adamant about going. Yuji demurs despite Yoshie’s pleas, and the story now drifts back 50 years. This flashback is the main narrative, explaining how a young Tomekichi (Ryo Kase) met Tomekichi (Rie Miyazawa) and her husband Matsuzo (Ryudo Uzaki) at their business/home, the Orion Cinema.
The old Kyoto of the film follows the “Always” template: It is lit with a pervasive golden glow as if life itself was sepia-toned back then, and nearly all of the action takes place in one tiny part of a single neighborhood which is art-directed to elicit gasps of nostalgia (especially from film nerds). This set doesn’t have the intricate detail of “Always” but the scope of this film is much smaller, and nothing seems like a cheat. Much of the film’s charm comes from the loving detail brought to the physical act of film projection: carrying the heavy stack of canisters, threading the film into the projector, flipping switches to dim house lights and illuminate another world on the silver screen.
The projection room is a cramped hot space, but Kase’s Tomekichi takes to it immediately. He wanders into town at 17, homeless and without prospects, and is more or less immediately adopted by Toyo and her husband after he begs for a job, any job, on the basis that he loves movies. The two sense his sincerity and harmlessness and he moves right in. In a shockingly unsentimentalized way, it is soon revealed that Matsuzo is critically ill with some lung ailment (probably not helped by his chain smoking). Once he dies, Tomekichi and Toyo are left to run the theater and share the home, a situation that the neighborhood folks find unacceptable. Soon enough the rumors have given them—and by extension their cinema—pariah status, and films play to empty seats. This situation isn’t helped by the sudden appearance of the neighborhood’s first television in a shop window.
It’s at this point that Yuji and Yoshie, two neighborhood kids around 7 or 8 years old, start showing up at the theater to escape the harsh realities of their home lives. This oddball family unit—mom and dad who aren’t married (and possibly not even romantic), brother and sister who aren’t related and grow up to marry—is the emotional core of the film, but unfortunately very little of “Orion”’s running time is devoted to it. It’s the only really upbeat time in the film, but it’s as if the producers were uncomfortable with the very message of the story they’re telling. This particular family is more warm, loving and accepting than any of the others depicted in the movie, but their group happiness is short-lived.
The film doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is, which is maybe its problem. Director Kenki Saegusa doesn’t attempt to tearjerk with nearly the effort of “Always” or any of a dozen other popular Japanese movies, which is sort of admirable but also somewhat perverse. If this film isn’t meant to tug on heartstrings, what is it meant to do? Somewhere along the line the decision was made to avoid committing to Toyo and Tomekichi’s relationship. Are they lovers? Are they platonic? There’s the implication that they are a romantic couple, but they never share so much as a kiss. Perhaps this remove is meant to place us in the shoes of their neighbors, but to what purpose? To sympathize or relate to the people who ostracized them? I’ve not read Jiro Asada’s original novel from which the film was adapted, so perhaps this ambiguity was central to the text. I would argue that a good film adaptation knows when to adhere and when to stray from its source material, and while no one wants to see the Adrian Lyne version (sweaty illicit sex set against the backdrop of the advent of television), the film felt somewhat cagey in its avoidance.
The performances are fine throughout. Miyazawa exhibits the same fragility as she did in “Tony Takitani”, and the ambiguity of her character’s relationship with Tomekichi allows her some nuanced moments. One of the film’s standout scenes, a day in the park shortly after Matsuzo’s death, allows Miyazawa to grieve tastefully but also suggest that she’ll lean on Tomekichi—but not too much. (She makes Tomekichi a gift of Matsuzo’s green leather cap, but immediately comments that it looks bad on him.) Kase wears a variation of puppydog devotion throughout the film, and Harada, as the elder Tomekichi, follows suit. Miyazawa’s Toyo is the kind of big-hearted woman who convincingly inspires it, but it’s not quite the same as showing us how these two interrelate. The movie does get some credit for avoiding any forced happy endings, but “Invitation from Cinema Orion” doesn’t quite connect with the viewer the way it needs to. Since we don’t know if the dynamic between the principals is romantic or not, they’re at arm’s length throughout. We know the other couple, Yuji and Yoshie, are heading for divorce regardless. There’s no one to root for and a string of sad or at very least less than happy endings, yet the film isn’t quite emotional enough to inspire tears. Japanese audiences agreed, and the film opened virtually unnoticed more or less concurrent with “Always 2”. It’s a shame, because on paper a less cloyingly sentimental take on a story like this, with this cast, sounds great. In its execution, something just went missing.