The titular heroine of Yuya Ishii’s terrific comedy Sawako Decides is a self-described ‘sub-middling woman’ who relocated to Tokyo five years ago and is now employed in her fifth job in the capital, while dating her fifth boyfriend. As a worker from a rural area without a university education, career prospects for Sawako (Hikari Mitsushima) are limited and she finds herself stuck in a lowly office position, unable to climb the corporate ladder. Her love-life is possibly even less promising as her boyfriend Kenichi (Masashi Endo) is a sweater-knitting divorcee, while Sawako struggles to connect with Kayoko (Kira Aihara), his young daughter from the failed marriage; Sawako is clearly uncomfortable when Kenichi describes her as a ‘new mother’ to Kayoko and her gossiping co-workers make no secret of their lack of regard for her relationship choices. This unremarkable urban existence is suddenly interrupted when Sawako receives news that her father Tadao (Kotaro Shiga) has been taken ill, necessitating a return to her small home town with Kenichi and Kayoko in tow. Sawako must assume control of the family freshwater clam processing business, a struggling operation which is on the brink of closure, but finds that her father’s employees –her former high school love rival among them – are not particularly pleased about her presence. With a rift developing between Sawako and Kenichi due to revelations about the reason for her relocation five years earlier, Sawako rallies all available resources to save both the family business and her romantic relationship.
Although the slight narrative of Sawako Decides revolves around a young woman who aspires to be average, there is nothing ‘sub-middling’ about this sixth feature from independent writer-director Ishii, whose previous credits include Bare-assed Japan (2005) and Girl Sparks (2008). Ishii’s films often take place in rural communities or small towns and focus on unlikely heroes and heroines who must rise above familial differences in order to maintain economic stability and self-respect. Sawako Decides is arguably Ishii’s most successful exploration of these themes to date, largely due to the excellent lead performance by Mitsushima which makes the audience root for a heroine who, for at least two-thirds of the film, refuses to root for herself. Previously seen in Love Exposure (2008) and Kakera – A Piece of Our Life (2009), the entirely unselfconscious Mitsushima makes Sawako a relatable protagonist whose refrain of, ‘It can’t be helped’, will strike a chord with anyone who has ever felt similarly ‘sub-middling’. There is a lot of awkward apologising and slouching around as Sawako deals with the belated fall-out of her return to the small town fold, but Ishii eventually offers Mitsushima the opportunity to let rip in a stand-out scene that finds Sawako addressing the factory employees by passionately arguing, ‘I’m just a lower-middling woman, right? But who here can claim any better?’ It marks a perfect turning point in both character and narrative as Sawako embraces her newfound proactive attitude and subsequently mounts a creative advertising campaign that aims to sell a lot of clams.
Amid the laughs and tears, Sawako Decides comments on the social order of contemporary Japan by comparing small town life with that of the big city; Ishii notes that both rural and urban living can be hard-going, with Sawako overhearing unnecessarily hurtful chatter behind her back, while employees of factories and offices are equally expendable in a ruptured economy. However, the film ultimately favours small town life as, although it is still a world of limits and restraints, it enables Sawako to find the inner-resolve needed to triumph over the odds. This stance is emphasised by an amusing sub-plot involving a local fisherman’s fling with a university research student who finds the sight of someone doing work that is physical rather than theoretic to be, ‘really cool’. More laughs are raised by Sawako’s former school friend making a play for the affable but ineffectual Kenichi, the heroine’s bouts of beer-swilling, and a rousing revision of the company song with the lyrics, ‘Our work is tedious and boring, because we’re only lower-middles, but we enjoy our lives, we are all very happy.’ The inevitable reconciliation that occurs between Sawako and her estranged father is a potentially clichéd pitfall, but Ishii sidesteps sentimentality, instead showing how pain can be caused through familial misunderstanding and the need to address such issues before it is too late. A charming comedy with a sense of humour straight from the school of hard knocks, Sawako Decides is one of the most refreshing Japanese movies in recent years.
Sawako Decides screens Sunday, July 24th at 7:00 PM at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto as the closing film of the 3rd Shinsedai Cinema Festival