The romantic combination of an older woman and a younger man is common now in Hollywood films, which have come a long way since the day when a young (actually 30-year-old) Dustin Hoffman threw over a middle-age (actually 36-year-old) Anne Bancroft in “The Graduate.” As film critic Roger Ebert astutely remarked, Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson was “the most sympathetic and intelligent” character in the film, while Hoffman’s “insufferable creep” Benjamin didn’t know what he was passing up.
This combination, however, is not often found in Japanese films. One reason, I suppose, is that women over a certain age — traditionally 25 — have long been, unfairly, considered past their romantic sell-by date, especially to younger guys, who might regard them as an onesan (older sister) or obasan (older woman) but rarely a potential kanojo (girlfriend). This is changing, though, as Nami Iguchi’s “Hito no Sex o Warau na (Sex is no Laughing Matter)” makes refreshingly clear.
Based on an eponymous novel by Naokora Yamazaki, the film is an unusual combination of drama and comedy within a relationship, and it is shot in the by-now standard style for Japanese indies: longish cuts, no close-ups, and naturalistic dialogue and acting. Expecting, from the stylistics, an elliptical, subdued and downbeat look at age-inappropriate love, I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s sly humor, freeform eroticism and blithe refusal to treat its theme as inherently sad.
Iguchi and her collaborators, including coscriptwriter Yuka Honcho and star Hiromi Nagasaku, turn the usual May-September romance tropes on their head. They have created, not a fantasy figure for middle-age women, but a down-to-earth heroine who, on the verge of 40, is still willing and able to take what she wants sexually, regardless of society’s norms. She may not be sitting next to you on the commuter train or across the dining room table, but she exists just as vividly as Mrs. Robinson, minus the smoky nylons and whiskey-cured voice.
She is Yuri, a teacher of lithography at an art college. We first see her stumbling along a mountain road at dusk, with a broken heel, after missing a last train. She is rescued by a girl and two guys in a pickup truck, one of whom, the tall, boyishly handsome Mirume (Kenichi Matsuyama), helps her into the back, rides with her to the nearest bus stop — and hands her his own flip flops.
Later, Mirume, who is a student at the college, borrows a light from a woman smoking next him on a campus bench — and realizes it’s Yuri. Giving no sign she knows him, she walks away — and Mirume follows her to her classroom. When he peers in the window of the classroom door, she pops up from the other side like a jack-in-the-box and sticks out her tongue, scaring him half to death. This is clearly no ordinary obasan.
She is also not a standard-issue movie flake. As she instructs a curious Mirume in the art of lithography, we realize she is a thorough professional, as well as obviously older than her new student, despite her youthfully trim figure and vivacious — if mischievous — personality.
She asks him to be her model and, when he arrives at her house for a drawing session, seduces him with sly calculation. Unlike the girl he spends time with at college, the tomboyish En-chan (Yu Aoi), Yuri is unembarrassed by sex, treating it instead as a delicious game. At first hesitant, Mirume is soon an eager player. When he starts taking the game seriously, however, she stops coming to school. A worried Mirume gets hold of her address and arrives at her door, where he is greeted by a kindly, gray-haired fellow (Morio Agata) who turns out to be Yuri’s artist husband. Yuri is unapologetic about her duplicity, while Mirume is flabbergasted but not discouraged. The husband remains blissfully oblivious — or is perhaps simply resigned.
Meanwhile, En-chan, now well aware of what is going on, decides to confront Yuri. Yet another player in this romantic roundelay is the bespectacled, nerdy Domoto (Shugo Oshinari), who is head over heels for En-chan — and best friends with Mirume. (He was also the driver of the pickup truck on that fateful evening.)
Iguchi, making her second feature after her 2004 romantic comedy “Inuneko (Dog and Cat),” could have taken this setup in the direction of farce — or tragedy. Instead, she finds a middle way that is truer to life — or rather Yuri’s unconventional character. Also, where most directors would turn up the volume, with towering rows and thrown crockery, she turns it down. The volatile En-chan expresses her frustration at her rejection by bouncing on a bed around Mirume’s passed-out-drunk form. The scene is cute but eloquent and unfolds without a word.
Life, of course, is not always a low-volume affair, and the film might have benefited from an air-clearing (and comic) row or two, but the title has it right. Sex, even for a free spirit like Yuri, has consequences, not all of which can be laughed away.
Nagasaku, who gave the funniest performance of 2007 as the chirpy, batty housewife in Daihachi Yoshida’s “Funukedomo Kanashimi no Ai o Misero (Funuke Show me Some Love, you Losers)” is also excellent as Yuri, striking the right balance between the manipulative and playful sides of her character. She is a bit of a devil, this woman, but a sympathetic one. Her boy toy strikes it very lucky indeed — and unlike the witless Benjamin, knows it.