A woman in her 20s falls for a middle-aged professor who was her late granny’s lover in “Her Granddaughter,” an offbeat romance adapted from a manga by Keiko Nishi. Although the protags’ age difference might have lended itself to a more off-color depiction, pink-film veteran Ryuichi Hiroki avoids lurid May-September cliches: Steeped in the tranquil beauty of the Japanese countryside, and unabashedly nostalgic for traditional ways of courtship, the film is wholesome and mellow, but may leave viewers yearning for a more sensual touch. Still, it’s a beguiling, seamlessly executed package that should find decent exposure in Asian markets and audience-friendly festivals.
Tsugumi (Nana Eikura, Hiroki’s “April Bride,” “Library Wars”) takes a sabbatical from her high-flying IT job in Tokyo to nurse her dying grandmother Towa (Chiaki Konno) in Tsurumi, a sleepy town in Kagoshima, in the southern prefecture of Kyushu. When Towa passes away, Tsugumi decides to stay on, whiling away her time in the spacious ancestral mansion. But her equilibrium is quickly upset when Jun Kaieda (Etsushi Toyokawa, “Love Letter,” “20th Century Boys”), a fiftysomething professor of philosophy who was given a spare set of keys by Towa, moves into a separate wing. Rangy and spruce, the bespectacled scholar saunters about in Japanese geta clogs, availing himself of Tsugumi’s laundry and culinary services with a blithe sense of entitlement.
While dishing out unflattering comments on Tsugumi’s dress sense and lack of sex appeal, Kaieda simultaneously declares his love for her with self-righteous candor. By not stoking the odd-couple antics to a heady, comical level, Hiroki lets his winsome protags gradually settle into a cozy rhythm, synching with each other in mind and body, as when Tsugumi rides home with Kaieda on his bicycle after they’ve attended a summer fair together. A masterful traveling shot by lenser Atsuhiro Nabeshima captures their furtive intimacy as they swerve along a brookside path, yukata robes billowing in the breeze. Most of the scenes are suffused with such relaxed grace, ambling along without anything significantly dramatic occurring for almost 90 minutes, until an erotic moment that will prove nirvana for foot fetishists.
Subplots, however, tend to be discursive. Tsugumi’s emotional entanglements, which prompted her self-imposed retreat, are obliquely hinted at during a weekend visit by her bosom friend Akimoto (Sakura Ando, wonderfully chilled). An episode set in Kyoto discloses aspects of Kaieda’s past that shed some light on his atypical opinions and behavior, though his affair with Towa is never explored fully. Kaieda and Tsugumi’s temporary adoption of a boy who might have been abandoned by his single mother further alters their dynamics, dousing their sexual bond with hokey, ersatz family bonding.
Fifty-three-year-old Toyokawa is the perfect physical embodiment of the Kaieda in Nishi’s manga, supposedly based on her own father and representing the authoritative, straight-talking men of a bygone era — attributes she finds missing among contempo Japanese “herbivores.” Not only does the veteran actor exude the unflappable charm of a mature intellectual, he also limns his eccentricity with self-deprecating humor, much as he did in Hiroki’s “It’s Only Talk” (2006). As a typical city girl, slender Eikura brings a swan-like poise to the role of a woman struggling with loneliness and low self-esteem. Idol Osamu Mukai turns up too late as Nakagawa, a blast from Tsugumi’s past, to have much impact on the story.
The film is shot in the western prefecture Mie, which serves as a credible stand-in for Kagoshima. Craft contributions are stylishly understated, exemplified by Junichi Kikuchi’s fluid editing and Koji Endo’s lightly sonorous score. Nabeshima’s generous use of low-angle shots captures the flavor of traditional Japanese interiors, making Towa’s house emerge as a character in itself. Costume designer Ayumi Tanaka outfits Toyokawa in crisp cotton shirts and dapper linen suits that adds a dandyish touch to his image, while offsetting Eikura’s minimalist, slightly downbeat wardrobe.
The Japanese title means “A Tomboy’s Life.”