‘Tsuyukusa’: A charming second shot at love and life

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Once you get past a certain point in life, the chance of finding new love must feel as remote as getting struck by lightning — or a meteorite, for that matter.

Single and newly sober, 49-year-old Fumi (Satomi Kobayashi), the protagonist of Hideyuki Hirayama’s “Tsuyukusa,” is driving home from an alcohol support group when her car is hit by a tiny space rock. It leaves her vehicle flipped on its side, and seems to throw her determinedly mundane life out of kilter, too.

She’s been living in a quiet seaside town on the Izu Peninsula, where she works at a textile factory and spends her days off hanging out with a co-worker’s astronomy-obsessed son, Kohei (Taiyo Saito). Her reasons for wanting to spend so much time with a boy four decades her junior gradually become clear as the film progresses, and its layers of comic whimsy drift away to reveal a deeper well of hurt.

Tsuyukusa
Rating
Run Time 95 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens April 29

That’s something Fumi shares with Goro (Yutaka Matsushige), a former dentist with a forlorn air, who’s one of the town’s few eligible bachelors in her age bracket. He also has a talent for playing the leaf; his preferred variety, tsuyukusa (Asiatic dayflower), provides the film’s title. As he tells Fumi, with a touch of sadness, you can find it growing anywhere.

Emboldened by her close encounter with the cosmos, Fumi embarks on a shy, unfailingly polite courtship with this lonely soul, and it’s a joy to watch. (“Would it be any trouble if I gave you a kiss?” Goro asks at the end of an evening together.) Both of these characters carry a heavy burden; like the others in the film, they’re just looking for something to make life a little more tolerable.

The underlying sadness in “Tsuyukusa” doesn’t drag the movie down, though I must confess that I had an allergic reaction to Saito’s performance as Kohei, which feels like it’s been dredged from some toxic vat of 1980s child-actor mannerisms. Hirayama might have encouraged the actor to dial it down a bit; instead, he also gets him to supply a toe-curling narrative voiceover, though thankfully this is kept to a minimum after the introductory scenes.

The rest of the cast are considerably more endearing. It’s rare to see Kobayashi in a lead role, and she brings the same warmth and deft humor that she deployed so effectively in Naoko Ogigami’s “Kamome Diner” (2006).

She has some winning scenes with her factory coworkers, Taeko (Noriko Eguchi) and Naoko (Kami Hiraiwa), both of whom really deserve more screen time. A wordless exchange at a traffic stop light, when Fumi catches sight of Taeko’s date and tries to encourage her to swipe left, is a brilliant bit of silent comedy.

There are times when Hirayama doesn’t quite get the tone right, and the film can be overly twee at points (a South Asian character in traditional dress who pops up occasionally, but contributes nothing to the plot, is the kind of sub-Wes Anderson touch that we could’ve done without). This isn’t the director’s usual fare — 2019’s somber “Family of Strangers” was more typical — and he appears to be overcompensating.

However, the overall effect is gently charming. Based on an original script by Teruo Abe that took over a decade to reach the screen, “Tsuyukusa” also benefits from pithiness. At 95 minutes, it’s just right.

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