Mitsuko Delivers

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/11/12 14:01:18

"Does deliver, but after a fair amount of labor."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The previous film by Yuya Ishii to play Fantasia was called "Sawako Decides", and to be completely honest, this one could do with a little more deciding and acting on those decisions. As nice as this movie and most everybody in it is, it wouldn't hurt if the characters were a little more active.

Take Mitsuko Hara (Riisa Naka). Nine months pregnant from a man left behind when she returned to Tokyo from California, she's just been evicted from her apartment, and, after a nap, tells a taxi driver to follow a cloud. It takes her to a run-down neighborhood that looks the same as it did during World War II. She barges into the apartment of "Granny" Kiyoshi (Miyoko Inagawa), the bedridden landlady and sets up housekeeping, getting dinner on the house at nearby Yoichi's Restaurant. It's not quite as rude as it sounds; Yoichi (Aoi Nakamura) recognizes her from fifteen years ago, when young Mitsuko (Momoka Oono) and her parents (Shiro Namiki & Miyako Takeuchi) hid from their creditors for a few months that turned out to influence Mitsuko quite a bit.

Well, maybe it is a bit rude, but Mitsuko's pushiness is a part of her character. Though poker-faced and given to not bother with any explanation when she does act, she's also aggressively generous, and almost uncomprehending when others don't act according to the same principles. That selfless nature is actually sort of a storytelling problem in a lot of ways; she's so seemingly passive when making decisions on her own behalf that the film gets stuck in neutral.

Indeed, Mitsuko is so willing to just go with the flow that a pair of second-tier supporting characters - Yoichi's uncle Jiro (Ryo Ishibashi) and the owner of the café across the street from the restaurant (Keiko Saito) - and their story threatens to steal the movie. It's not like their story is that much more active; it's actually based on twenty years of Jiro not making a move. But there's ritual and scale to it, and an actual story packed into one line from the lady's son. The action in the last act - when things actually get pretty frantic - revolves around their story being forced to a climax as much as it does Mitsuki going into labor.

That sudden burst of activity suggests that Ishii is trying to get at some sort of theme about activity versus passivity, but it's perhaps a muddled one. Maybe the key is in the title's English translation; that while Mitsuko doesn't seem to make a lot of choices on her own behalf, she'll create a crisis that forces someone else to act, and she doesn't wait for a specific ideal situation the way the rest of the cast does to their (temporary, if sometimes drawn-out) detriment. It's a subtle distinction, even with such clear metaphors as the bomb under Granny's apartment or the utterly rooted way Yoichi and Jiro wait for business to find them, and Ishii has a difficult time with the line between "give it a bit; things will turn out all right" and "you can miss out on a lot if you wait forever".

(Translation might be an issue, too; Mitsuko uses the word "iki" a lot, subtitled as "cool", but the Japanese word seems to have a more specific meaning than the English one, along the lines of "good without expectation".)

The cast does well enough with the script, though Riisa Naka has a difficult task. Mitsuko is meant to seem peculiar from the outside, and she gets that, but she's often so low-key that the character's basic generosity and kindness comes off as eccentricity; something central to her personality seems out of character. Miyoko Inagawa is quite good, though, both as the idealistic old woman in the past and the fatalistic very old woman in the present. Ryo Ishibashi and Keiko Saito are big reasons why Jiro's story can overtake Mitsuko's. Aoi Nakamura does the best he can given little but a sense of duty.

"Mitsuko Delivers" has a few moments, and Ishii does have a knack for assembling an interesting ensemble. He just has a hard time getting the audience from feeling that the characters deserve to be happy to feeling that they've earned it.

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