Sawako (Hikari Mitsushima) isn’t quite leading the life she always wanted in Tokyo. She’s been there for five years and like clockwork is on both her fifth job and fifth boyfriend… neither of which she’s all that thrilled about. The job sees her walked over by her male bosses and abused by little kids, and her private life finds her playing second fiddle to her boyfriend’s daughter, Kayoko (Kira Aihara). Her co-workers tell her to leave Kenichi (Masashi Endo), but she thinks she doesn’t really deserve any better. “We’re both lower-middles,” she says. How can she possibly hope for more?
Clearly, Sayako is no bundle of sunshine.
She gets a call from home letting her know that her father is gravely ill and she’s needed to help with the family business, a freshwater clam packing company. Her impulse is to say no as she left home for a reason, but she reluctantly lets Kenichi talk her into returning home with both him and his rude daughter in tow. Once there she goes to work trying to keep the factory afloat in her father’s absence, but it won’t be easy. If her door-mat attitude wasn’t bad enough she’s also forced to confront townspeople she offended, deal with her boyfriend’s wandering eye, and accept the guilt of her last words to her father those many years ago.
“This watermelon grew from your poo!”
If Sawako Decides were a traditional film (or an American one) Sawako would return home and learn to triumph over all of the adversity in her path as well as find a wonderful boyfriend. It opens after all with her getting a colonic irrigation to literally cleanse herself of all the shit she’s holding inside. It’s both symbolic and incidental as it isn’t her first time with a hose up her butt. But writer/director Yuya Ishii has no interest in catering to tradition. His primary interest appears to be providing a rare and honest look at life, love, and expectations.
And it starts with a lead character that most of us would leave in the rear view mirror without a second thought.
Sawako is a grump and a pushover, and she has no plans on changing that attitude anytime soon. She’s also incredibly docile, something that comes from believing she doesn’t deserve better from her job, boyfriend, and life in general. Standing up for herself and to someone else are not options. So when a factory worker, technically Sawako’s employee, calls her out as a liar all she can do is apologize to the woman. The family home has no plumbing so she has to take a bucket filled with waste out to the wetland behind the house and ladle it into the wet earth. She’s told others can do the work, but she believes it’s her task.
But it’s while doing work like this that the real Sawako begins to poke through. She finds a singular flower growing in the shit-filled swamp and tries to give it to father. It doesn’t go as planned, but it’s a tender moment offering a glimpse of the woman, and daughter, that she so badly wants to be. More randomly sweet scenes help make this initially unlikeable character into someone that the audience eventually warms up to, but the film remains stalwart and true to its particular premise.
The propelling force behind the film is Mitsushima’s performance as the publicly meek and privately inebriated Sawako. She pops open multiple beers throughout the film, and they’re quickly identified as the sole source of comfort she allows herself. Mitsushima brings innocence and a barely contained irritation to the role that makes her appear far more human than many films manage with their leading ladies.
Sawako Decides is an unlikely slow-burn of a film in that it’s peppered with small, humorous touches, and it ends as calmly as it begins. Well, aside from the musical number…
The Upside: Hikari Mitsushima is adorable even as her character frustrates; script is sweet and lightly funny at times; positive message about staying true to yourself
The Downside: Slow character build; end message/moral is unusual and may not be positive enough for some
Sawako Decides is currently playing in UK theaters.