Tsuyukusa (2022)

Tsuyukusa first published as a programme note for the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2023

Writer/director Hideyuki Hirayama could aptly be called a veteran filmmaker. His feature debut Maria no ibukuro was made back in 1990, and many others have followed. Haunted School (1995) and its sequel (1996) were influential on the J-horror revival at the turn of the millennium, while Za Chugaku kyoshi (1992), Begging For Love (1998), Turn (2001), The Laughing Frog (2002), Out (2002) and Family of Strangers (2019) have all won him awards. In the year that his latest film, Tsuyukusa, was released, he was 72 years old. Yet the film’s narrator is Kohei Kushimoto (Taiyo Saito), a young schoolboy – and between these two extremes comes Kohei’s friend, and the film’s protagonist, Fumi Igarashi (Satomi Kobayashi), who defines middle-aged. 

Similarly, while young audiences have long been mainstream cinema’s biggest target for mainstream cinema, and recently a combination of solvency and free time among pension-aged viewers has given rise to films that cater to the ‘grey pound’, the ‘second act’ demographic has increasingly been squeezed from a market which aims relatively few films at the experiences and interests of those adults who are past parenthood but prior to retirement. Hirayama’s film, however,  focuses sharply on this transitional period in life. For it offers a moving portrait of a woman who, on the cusp of 50, seems to be weighed down by her own history even as she struggles to move on to something new. 

Fumi’s intermediate status is reinforced by her location – a picturesque coastal village where she is often found on beaches, wharves, bridges, jetties and other liminal space between land and sea. For while the life of this single, small-town textile worker may seem narrowly circumscribed, her adventures are always set against the fluid infinity of the ocean beyond – and while she may seem utterly grounded, her earthbound existence is about to come into collision with the cosmic when, in a freak ‘100 million to one’ incident (as amateur astronomer Kohei puts it), a small meteorite comes crashing into her car. 

If this heavenly intervention helps Fumi see herself in a new light, she was in fact already on the path to change and recovery before the moon rock hit. For, having been lost for some time to the oblivion of alcohol, she had decided a week earlier to give up drinking, and was driving home from a meeting of the Abstinence Society when the meteorite landed. Fumi associates her drinking with both childhood and lovesickness: “I had my first drink in summer, my second year at high school,” she tells the Society, “The day an older member of my handball team I loved rejected my love letter.” She also spends much of her time in the company of actual child Kohei, who is the son of her work colleague Naoko (Kami Hiraiwa), and who is experiencing his own first lovesickness over a schoolfriend. When Fumi is not playing mother to Kohei, she conducts wistful one-way conversations in her apartment with the framed photo of a similarly aged boy who is the crux of Fumi’s guilt and loss, and the reason that her life has been on hold for so long.   

Fumi is arrested – stuck between a past that she cannot fully put behind her, and a future that seems out of reach. This is perhaps best conveyed by the fact that, even after she has gone on the wagon, she keeps gravitating back – if only for meals – to the bar which was once her drinking hole of choice. That bar, significantly named ‘Compass’, is where Fumi feels centred and finds her bearings. It is also where she meets dentist turned traffic cop Goro Shinoda (Yutaka Matsushige), a similarly lonely figure who has, like Fumi, exiled himself from Tokyo to forget his sorrows. 

“Dentists can’t fix their own teeth,” Goro will tell Kohei – but perhaps together Goro and Fumi can help each other “fix the pain” so that they “can keep on going”. For Hirayama holds out the promise of a new romance blooming between these two lost souls, while ever so gradually revealing the sources of their lingering sadness. It seems that Fumi can be, as she puts it, “a girl again”, enjoying a second childhood, albeit “just for a while” – much as work colleague Taeko Kikuchi (Noriko Eguchi) has been able to rediscover love even at her husband’s funeral. 

Tsuyukusa is named for the “common flower” whose leaves Goro can skilfully turn into a musical instrument with his lips. Similarly this bittersweet if ultimately affirmative film takes ordinary characters and breathes new life into them, in the end letting Fumi defy the very forces of gravity in a late – but not too late – leap towards love. 

strap: Hideyuki Hirayama’s bittersweet beachside romance lets two arrested middle-agers take an unexpected leap from past to future

© Anton Bitel