Sawako Decides

Hikari Mitsushima is one hell of an actress. I haven’t looked too much into her past, but from what I gather she is a gravure idol-turned-actress, who started out with small bit parts in feature films, notably the live-action Death Note series. I have not seen these films, so this means next to nothing to me. She first really made waves in circles of Japanese Cinema fans in Shion Sono’s masterpiece, Love Exposure, as the protagonist’s obsessive love interest, who put him through hell. Though she was one of the major characters in Love Exposure, it is in Yûya Ishii’s Sawako Decides which she truly shines. After having only seen two of her films, she has already put herself in contention to be one of my favorite young actresses working today.

I normally don’t focus so much on acting while reviewing films, mind you, but Mitsushima’s performance is perhaps the foremost factor in elevating Sawako Decides from an above-average drama to a very good and memorable film. She is the eponymous Sawako, a timid young woman drifting through life in her fifth year, fifth job, and fifth boyfriend in Tokyo. She is defined primarily by her overwhelmingly defeatist attitude. Early in the film, two of her coworkers discuss a television program they had watched on global warming, describing how the world is headed for a catastrophe in fifty years. Sawako’s response? “Can’t help it.” They begin to ask her about her life with her divorcée boyfriend Kenichi (Masashi Endo) and his daughter Kayako (Kira Aihara). Sawako admits to being somewhat irritated with her boyfriend, who seems to be in a bit of ignorant bliss himself, and the daughter doesn’t seem to very fond of her either. Her coworkers encourage her to break up with him. Sawako’s response? “Can’t help it.”

As you can tell, “can’t help it” is her general catchphrase to describe pretty much everything. Sawako doesn’t think highly of herself.  She describes herself as “lower-middle,” and is complacent to settle for what she has because she feels it’s all she deserves. The plot is set in motion when her uncle Nobuo (Ryo Iwamatsu) informs her that her father Tadao (Kotaro Shiga), whom she hasn’t seen in five years, is terminally ill. She is reluctant to leave, but after Kenichi quits his job (or is rumored to be fired thanks to designing an unpopular children’s toy), he is able to talk her into moving back to her home to see her dying father and to raise Kayoko in “the wilderness.” Said “wilderness” is eco-friendly, you see. He also desires to help resuscitate Sawako’s father’s failing business.

This plot is all peripheral, you see. The story is not about the revival of a business, or the mourning of an ill father, but is about Sawako’s attitude about life.  She does not respect herself, and in turn is not well respected by others. Sawako’s struggle is learning to take grasp of her own defeatist tendencies.

Director Ishii is well respected in Japan for his “existential comedies,” as the press has labeled his films. In particular, Sawako Decides reminds me of the works of Bong Joon-Ho, one of my favorite currently working directors, in its mood and general handling of the characters. Unlike Bong, I don’t know if I see a future Official Master of Cinema in Ishii, but I do look forward to seeing more of his films. What separates the two is Bong’s stylistic flair, which judging by this film is something that Ishii hasn’t fully developed yet. The style isn’t particularly plain, but it isn’t anything to write about, either.

Thankfully, Hikari Mitsushima steps up to bat in making Sawako Decides more than a merely worthwhile film. So pleased was Ishii with her performance that he married her, and who could blame him? Hopefully this means that we’ll see more of her in his future films.

Update: After extra thought, I decided to bump the film up to 4.5. I also would like to say that I simply did not give enough credit to the film’s script.

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About Adam DiPiazza
I love Peach Snapple.

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