Thursday, April 5, 2018

Review - Don't Laugh at My Romance

April 5, 2018

Don’t Laugh at My Romance – Japan, 2007

In one of his books on relationships, John Gray writes that for one between two people with a large age gap to work, one of them must display the normal characteristics of someone the other’s age. In other words, either the older one acts more childlike, or the younger one acts more mature. I would suggest however that the older one has an advantage – having been in the others’ shoes, they know how younger people think and what appeals to them. This – as well as their greater financial resources - gives them a great degree of power in the relationship. That clout is clearly on display in Nami Iguchi’s oddly titled Don’t Laugh at My Romance,  

The film follows the relationship that developments between Yuri (Hiromi Nagasaku), a thirty-nine year old art lecturer whose can perhaps best be described as open and independent, and Minume (Kenichi Matsuyama), a nineteen-year-old university student who seems rather naïve. He is also tall, somewhat handsome, and rather playful. The two meet under unusual circumstances. She has missed the last bus home, and he is in a truck with friends who just happen to pass her on the road. They offer her a ride, and Minume elects to sits in the back with her to keep her company. One can imagine that the two engaged in conversation and that it is during this time that their initial spark forms. I say imagine because like Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, Don’t Laugh at My Romance pans back and then flashes forward.

What follows is an interesting courtship, one initiated by someone who clearly knows what will appeal to the other. It is a kind of dance – there’s an initial short series of steps that get his attention followed by a few unfinished combinations, the effect of which stimulate his interest and make him feel that he has more control over the situation than he actually does. Her most successful tactic is to make him feel attractive, and she accomplishes this by asking him if he’ll model for her. It works like a charm. She makes other requests of course, ones that would seem grossly inappropriate were they a) made by a man and b) not delivered in such a cute and humorous way. The result: She gets both a painting and a lover.

I liked these early scenes a great deal. They believably brought together the two characters and highlighted what made their relationship work. Yuri displays the kinds of behavior one would expect from a love-struck teenager, and the two of them seem to genuinely enjoy being together. A scene in which they attempt to blow up a camping mattress is particularly entertaining.

There are two other characters that warrant mentioning: Minume’s friends Domoto (Shugo Oshinari) and En-Chan (Yu Aoi). Domoto doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but he provides a steady presence whenever there’s advice to be distributed or a helping hand to be offered. En is slightly more problematic. She is positioned as Yuri’s opposite; she’s young, inexperienced, and hesitant to act on her emotions. In fact, she’s more likely to run away than face challenges head on, and this includes dealing with her obvious affection for Minume.

Given such a set-up, Don’t Laugh at My Romance could have easily become one of those films that elevates one woman over the other and declares only one of them to truly love Minume. However, for this to occur, En would have to develop an inner strength that the character doesn’t have and suddenly become emotionally expressive, which would mark a departure for her character. Fortunately, the film avoids this, instead electing to have Yuri initiate several interesting conversations with En, during which she gives her the kind of advice one normally doesn’t hear from someone in her situation.

So, the film has a number of things going for it. It is a disappointment then that it doesn’t really know what to do with its characters. Too often in the second half of the film, the focus shifts to Minume, and he is actually the least interesting character in the film. Sure, his early scenes bustle with energy, yet much of this is due to Yuri. In fact, the second half of the film reduces Minume to being an indecisive, obsessive boyfriend. He spends much of his time either pinning for Yuri from afar or going place to place trying to find her. It’s not a lot of fun to watch. It also denies the character an arc. Whatever lesson he should learn from his experiences with Yuri is lost on him. This would be acceptable if the film adequately explained his obsession, yet there is no hint that Yuri and Minume have the kind of passionate intimacy that could create such feelings or that they have the kind of emotional connection that it would cause such trauma to lose.

The film also never moves Yuri far enough beyond her eccentricities. Sure, there’s the introduction of a character that goes a long way to explain why she would be seeking love in another person’s arms, but the film never gives Yuri a scene that helps us truly understand her. She seems not to have a care in the world, and while that is refreshing in the beginning, it tries your patience later on.

I wonder just how much of this reaction is the result of Yuri being a woman. Were she a man and it were a woman suffering heartbreak, there’s no doubt that the audience would have a very negative reaction to him. He would be yet another man who wooed a younger woman, only to leave her heartbroken. Yet because Yuri is a woman – and a Japanese woman at that – I felt I was supposed to like her and admire the way she embraced both her sexuality and her personal freedoms. The film seems to be blaming Minume for being so ignorant of the world, when it is Yuri that takes advantage of that ignorance. Perhaps what Don’t Laugh at My Romance needed was an Annie Hall-type ending, the kind in which two characters meet up years later and we see that they both turned out all right. To say we don’t get it is to put it mildly, and the film’s resolution of En’s story line is convenient and wholly unsatisfactory.

In the end, Don’t Laugh at My Romance is a bit of a disappointment. After a promising start, it simply sputters out. It does not know where to go or how to end. It also suffers as a result of Iguchi’s over-reliance on long shots of inconsequential moments or long scenes with little payoff. In one such scene, we see En eating small treats at an art show. She eats and eats and eats, and then the scene ends without much being conveyed other than that she was hungry. During such moments, my eyes began to close, and by the end of the film, I had reached a level of exhaustion rare to me after completing a film. I couldn’t even find the energy to jot down more than a few general impressions of the film, yet the ones I did write were telling: good premise, no resolution, seems unclear what it wants to be or say, and ending too convenient. Perhaps that says it all. (on DVD in Region 3)

2 and a half stars

*Don’t Laugh at My Romance is in Japanese with English subtitles.            

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