One person’s dalliance is another person’s heartbreak in the whimsically delivered but seriously intended Japanese meller “Don’t Laugh at My Romance.” Based on a novel, this sophomore feature by writer-director Nami Iguchi (“The Cat Leaves Home”) features seamless performances and a script that hits all the right marks, its distinctly Japanese rhythms seasoned by a Gallic sensibility. Pic had a small local release in January, but will shine brightest on the fest circuit.
In Saitama, a satellite city of Tokyo, 19-year-old art student Mirume (Kenichi Matsuyama) has a few chance encounters with his college’s new lithographic teacher, Yuri (Hiromi Nagasaku). Twenty years Mirume’s senior, Yuri teaches him the finer points of lithography and then flirtatiously invites him back to her studio-cum-pied a terre so she can sketch him. The audience and Yuri have a good idea where the rendezvous is headed, but Mirume is slower on the uptake, making for a gentle seduction.
With his adoration growing into full-blown obsession, Mirume manages to acquire Yuri’s home address in Kiryu City, in the north. Making the day trip there, he’s greeted by an amiable older man called Mr. Inokuma (Morio Agata). The teen mistakes him for Yuri’s father, but he’s obviously her husband. Yuri is coquettishly amused by Mirume’s naivete, and her hubby is either oblivious, or placidly accustomed, to his wife’s sexual escapades.
Auds may well guess a subsequent plot twist before it is disclosed, but helmer Iguchi skillfully signals narrative revelations without letting their energy escape. Viewer can thus feel the tension in the buildup and benefit from a more detached viewpoint when the truth comes out.
Rest of the plot follows the impact of the illicit romance on both Mirume and fellow art student En (Yu Aoi), who becomes jealous when she finds out Mirume has fallen for an older woman. Firm scripting keeps the tone light but at no point trivializes the emotional content or the protags’ troubles.
Pic is full of charming digressions that create a full-blooded environment for the main narrative: an architecture class, incidental occurrences, characters’ idiosyncratic mannerisms. In less talented hands, these would seem like padding.
Direction is sure-footed, with long takes that sometimes just observe the scenery and allow actors to operate within the frame. Nagasaku is suitably bewitching as the free-spirited teacher, and all her scenes, whether depicting romantic or day-to-day activities, have a genuine sexual intimacy, despite the act itself never being shown. Matsuyama is convincing as the gullible young lover, and the versatile Aoi offers a typically strong perf as En.
Lensing has the dullish look favored by Japanese indies. Music by Hakase-Sun at times deliberately strives for a screwball tone which makes a droll counterpoint to the drama on-screen. Other tech credits are pro.
Pic is also known as “Sex Is No Laughing Matter.” Japanese title (“Don’t Laugh at My Sex”) translates as somewhere between the two English ones.