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Sawako Decides
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by Jay Seaver

"Hikari Mitsushima; remember that name."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: A frustrating aspect of seeing foreign films at festivals is that they tend to be very directer-oriented, so if it's a performance that catches one's eye, the most likely situation for seeing that actor again is if he/she and the director become regular collaborators. Sometimes you get lucky, though; after Hikari Mitsushima bowled audiences over in "Love Exposure" last year, it made a lot of sense to play her in the title role of "Sawako Decides", a decision that works out pretty well for all involved.

Sawako, 23, has been in Tokyo for five years, and is also on her fifth job - a tea lady at a toy company - and fifth boyfriend, Kenichi Arai (Masashi Endo), a junior executive at said company. He's divorced, spends his evenings knitting, and has a four-year-old daughter, Kayoko (Kira Aihara), but Sawako figure's she's no catch either. It can't be helped, as she says to every misfortune and embarrassment that comes her way. And those are about to pile up - Kenichi is fired, and her uncle Nobuo (Ryo Iwamatsu) has been calling her to come home, as her father Tadao (Kotaro Shiga) is dying and she's the only heir to the family's fresh water clam-packing business. She doesn't really want to - Sawako didn't leave under good circumstances - but Kenichi thinks it would be a good idea, so she goes along.

Sawako can be a kind of a downer of a character, especially early on. She's not self-confident, she's not assertive, and the impression she gives more often than not is that she doesn't really want to be there, wherever "there" is. She drinks a lot of beer, enough for other characters to occasionally comment on it. It takes a bit of time, in fact, to realize that Sawako is not a fundamentally negative character; she's just pragmatic. "It can't be helped" is never an excuse to give up, but it takes a while for it to really become an acknowledgment that she's got to try a little harder than others maybe might have to. Mitsushima's performance is a fine transformation from self-doubt to self-determination, one that doesn't advertise its turning points, even in retrospect, but which is appealing throughout. Matsushima has a way of perking up when something engages Sawako without suddenly making the character cheerful, and her flat statements can slap someone in the face with reality without them seeming mean. She never cracks a big smile (and only gets one really angry rant), but we get to know her well enough to see the joy and accomplishment in smaller reactions.

The rest of the cast complements her quite nicely. Endo is amusingly feckless as Kenichi; he does very well at superficially appearing mature but clearly never being as responsible as Sawako, even early on when he's at least talking a good game. Aihara is restrained but always spot-on as Kayoko, one of those silent, withdrawn chidren. Sometimes it seems like that kind of child performance isn't really that impressive - "just be still and stare where the director points!" - but she does fine work when called upon to react, not hamming it up at all. Also nicely restrained is Kotaro Shiga as Sawako's father; even when he's initially distant, there's always a sense that the rift between the two is an uneven one. He believes in Sawako, even when he can't say it.

Aside from creating a great character for Mitsushima to play, writer/director Yuya Ishii does a pitch-perfect job in creating a world that is almost inevitably going to put her down, but doesn't seem particularly designed to do so. He gets a lot of the details of both big business and small towns just right: The casual cruelty of Sawako's boss and generally poisonous atmosphere of the company would have to wear on her, but in some ways it's at least more up front than the gossipy nature of her small-town home. There's something very true about the hostility of the workers at the plant (the detail of how they're all the wives of the fishermen that the plant tries to low-ball sounds like something observed first-hand), as well as how opinions can change quickly and in lockstep. He also comes up with a couple of really darkly funny bits, like Kayoko hearing a story about a killer stepmother just before Sawako makes an awkward attempt to reach out to her, or how the only thing on-hand when Sawako desperately needs to throw things at Kenichi is highly inappropriate.

There are bits that don't quite work, sure, and this isn't quite the flashy role that first brought Hikari Mitsushima to prominence (you just don't get a lot of "Love Exposure"s in a career), but it's a very good movie and a very nice part. I don't now how she's regarded in Japan, but Mitsushima is certainly developing a reputation as one of the country's most promising young actresses.

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originally posted: 07/28/10 15:42:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/31/10 Marie Switkes a waste of time 2 stars
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Directed by
  YŻya Ishii

Written by
  YŻya Ishii

  Hikari Mitsushima
  Kotaro Shiga
  Ryo Iwamatsu
  Kira Aihara
  Masashi EndŰ

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