川の底からこんにちは (Kawa no soko kara konnichi wa)
Running time: 112 min
Reviewed by Eric Evans
Just before the new year I rewatched “Girl Sparks”, an observant, quirky and above all funny film from 2009’s inaugural Shinsedai Cinema Festival. It’s about a young woman graduating from high school who is fed up with her father, her friends, and above all her small town existence. The film is a little rough around the edges but manages to do hard things, like create a believable movie teenager, exceedingly well. Maybe the most easily accessible movie at the fest, it got big laughs and proved popular, and I thought “this filmmaker is one to watch. If he can maintain his unusual characters and comic timing but fix some structural issues, he’s going to be that rare beast: a creator of commercial, yet not shitty, films for young people. A Japanese John Hughes.”
That filmmaker is writer/director Yuya Ishii, and his sixth feature “Sawako Decides” fulfills that promise. At all of 28 years old, Ishii has proven to have an unmatched capacity for writing young (and not so young) women. Echoing the frustration with small town vicissitudes from his films “Girl Sparks” and “To Walk Beside You” (2009), “Sawako” manages to up the ante by resolving previous challenges with pacing without sacrificing any of the comedy. And the casting of lead actress Hikari Mitsushima elevates the material from the quirky and charming (see Ayuko Ikawa in “Sparks”) to the sublime. Like her previous breakout roles (Haru in Momoko Ando’s “Kakera” and Yoko in Sion Sono’s “Love Exposure”, both festival favorites), Sawako is a part that requires a total honesty—the self-conscious need not apply. It’s also a wildly unflattering role for a young actress: Sawako is usually wearing baggy sweats, shaggy hair hanging in front of a face that only becomes fully visible as she tilts her head back to swig a can of beer, constantly reminding everyone that she’s at best an average person (maybe “lower-middling”, or a bit below that). Mitsushima fearlessly brings the part to life, and exhibits a comic timing unseen in her previous work. It’s yet another impressive performance from someone who is still in the early part of her film career. Without the operatic excess of Sono’s film around her, Mitsushima carries “Sawako Decides” for its near two hours on the strength of her performance alone. Good actors ask the viewer to invest in the characters they play. Sawako is not a particularly likable person, but Mitsushima lets us see her uncertainty and her frustration, and you can’t look away.
Sawako lives passively. Her astonishing beer intake and chronic constipation hint that she’s not entirely content to live that way, but the one time she did act on impulse worked out poorly. Running away to Tokyo with the captain of the tennis team might have seemed like a romantic act five years ago, but the glow is gone once you get dumped and end up working low-level jobs to stay afloat. Worse, she’s flitted from guy to guy, content to have someone in her life but uninspired to find the right someone. Her current boyfriend Kenichi isn’t it: he’s judgmental about every aspect of her life, has a young daughter by a previous marriage (with whom Sawako shares a mutual disinterest), just quit his job, and wears foppish baby blue sweaters… which he knits himself. Things seem their worst when she gets a phone call informing her that her father is dying of Cirrhosis and she needs to come back to the small river town she fled as a teen. Kenichi and little Kayoko in tow, tail tucked, she reluctantly returns. Then things really go wrong.
Sawako shares the same indefinable disaffection with her life as Saeko in “Girl Sparks”, but Sawako somehow seems like she’s better defined, in sharper focus. In many ways, “Sawako Decides” functions as a sequel—or perhaps a refinement—to “Girl Sparks”. Young girl running away from small town to Tokyo? Check; love/hate relationship with her father? Check; returning to home town to assume place in family business? Check. But “Sawako” goes where “Girl Sparks”, a wonderful if slight comedy, didn’t: it holds its protagonist accountable for more than her own happiness, and when she finally does take action it’s for more than personal satisfaction. More, Ishii is refining his talents and demanding more of himself. “Sawako Decides” is a polished film, and not just owing to the cast. It snaps along without a care, never stalling or tripping over itself to get to the next laugh. Those laughs, when they come (and they come often), are in the same vein as early Juzo Itami, a result of characters and situations that, while absurd, aren’t contrived simply for the purpose of being funny. It was a surprise to learn that Ishii made both films just two years apart. “Sawako Decides” is a smart comedy that might seem too commercial for film festivals and too indie for the multiplex, but will find an appreciative audience at either.
“Sawako Decides” will be screened at the 34th Portland International Film Festival, February 10-26, 2011. For more information, visit www.nwfilm.org or follow the fest on Twitter @nwfilmcenter.