In a national independent cinema that frequently offers a choice between social commentary and offbeat comedy, Yuya Ishii’s charming drama Sawako Decides (2010) managed to strike a rather special balance, providing insight into the lives of Japan’s ‘lower-middles’ while exhibiting a healthy sense of humour. Ishii’s latest feature, Mitsuko Delivers, can be seen as a companion piece, with its ensemble cast of less-than-affluent characters and a titular heroine who becomes their unlikely leader. However, it also finds Ishii stepping into the mainstream: Mitsuko Delivers has a richer visual palette and more crowd-pleasing moments than Bare-assed Japan (2005) or Rebel, Jiro’s Love (2006), the director’s earlier studies of people learning how to cope with modern life, while the emergence of magical-realism in his work is likely to attract some new admirers. Following the surprise box office success of Sawako Decides, Ishii seems to be reaching out to a wider audience with Mitsuko Delivers, and his social-economic scope has increased in the process. The earlier film dealt with the difficulties faced by lower-level workers in both the big cities and rural areas, but this tale of an expectant mother who suddenly returns to the run-down Tokyo neighbourhood of her youth addresses general financial instability in Japan, also touching on the aftermath of Fukushima. As with Sawako Decides, this is potentially downbeat territory, yet Ishii’s belief that people just need to support one another in order to pull through tough times ensures that Mitsuko Delivers is a whimsical comedy with characters that are worth rooting for.
The film begins with the heavily-pregnant Mitsuko (Riisa Naka) living in an anonymous apartment, making regular visits to her doctor, and placing occasional phone calls to her parents, who think that she is in California. In a photograph, we see the African-American father of Mitsuko’s unborn child, posing with his buddies in a manner that suggest he is a ‘player’. Mitsuko can only describe her former partner as, ‘kinda big and really black’, with contact non-existent since their break-up. Having accepted that she will be a single mother, but running low on money for food and health care, Mitsuko has been left to rely on her philosophy of, ‘When the wind is not blowing your way, take a nap. When the wind is blowing your way, go with it.’ It is this tried-and-tested mantra that prompts Mitsuko to take a taxi ride to an old Tokyo neighbourhood that is populated by a small number of cash-strapped tenants, running businesses that are barely scraping by. Yet this is not a random destination, as it soon becomes apparent that Mitsuko has a personal connection to this area, a ramshackle tenement slum that somehow survived the Allied bombings during World War II and now stands in-between modern high-rise developments. Although she should be taking it easy in the ninth month or her pregnancy, Mitsuko tries to rejuvenate the neighbourhood by bringing business to elderly landlady Kiyoshi (Miyoko Inagawa) and the local café, while also reconnecting with her still-smitten childhood sweetheart, Yoichi (Aoi Nakamura).
As with the clam-packing community of Sawako Decides, the tenement neighbourhood of Mitsuko Delivers is established through attention to relationships and an emphasis on the camaraderie that is necessary during a downturn. Flashbacks show the ‘slum’ in its ‘heyday’ with Kiyoshi encouraging her out-of-work tenants to pick fights or sumo wrestle as a means of sociable distraction, while she is lenient on those who are struggling to pay the rent. Present-day scenes find the area in an even more dilapidated state, with residents deeply depressed, although Ishii mines the urban mood for deadpan humour rather than despair. At the café, Yoichi and his Uncle Jiro (Ryo Ishibashi) are barely motivated to serve the occasional customers who come in for the liver and chives special, merely standing around as if they are waiting to be put out of their misery. Ishii is less sure-footed with pacing than with observation, as Mitsuko Delivers lurches into its final act after a leisurely set-up. The slapstick comedy of the last half hour feels rather forced, with lots of shouting and squabbling threatening to undo the nicely-sketched characterisation that has preceded the extended finale. However, the fact that these farcical contrivances take the characters on a road trip to Fukushima shows that the director has the best of intentions. Mitsuko Delivers is a film about (re)birth that finds hope against the backdrop of a ruptured landscape and, in the lead role, the up-and-coming Naka is simply wonderful, contributing another memorably headstrong heroine to Ishii’s oeuvre.
Mitsuko Delivers opens at the ICA London on May 11, 2012 with screenings in other regional UK theaters to follow.