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Sawako Decides – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Sawako has lived in Tokyo for five years, is working her fifth office job, and is dating her fifth boyfriend, who is also her boss at the office. Her life with Kenichi, her boyfriend, and his daughter from a previous marriage, Kayoko, feels like a “compromise,” and she endures each day feeling distressed about her career and love life. One day, she receives word that her father, Tadao, who runs a freshwater clam processing business in her hometown, has fallen ill. There is a reason why Sawako would rather not go back home so easily, but she reluctantly decides to return at Kenichi’s insistence. But Kenichi, who had actually quit his job shortly before Sawako, uses this opportunity to come along with Sawako to her hometown with his daughter in tow. Thus Sawako’s ordeals continue. Still, she takes over her father’s clam processing company and begins to work there.

Director Yuya Ishii certainly has an eye for delivering offbeat humor within his pictures. With previous films such as Bare-assed Japan (2005) and Girl Sparks (2008) under his belt, Ishii has been able to mix deadpan humor with that of the trials and tribulations of modern day Japanese youth. He continues this tradition with his film Sawako Decides, this time focusing on the need to overcome one’s shameful actions and irresponsibility. As such, Ishii has definitely returned to similar ground covered within his previous films, where the normality of the situations faced by his characters are expressed in the most abnormal ways. This aspect of his works are definitely becoming his trademark, which may categorize him in his future works, but is found within Sawako Decides to be exceptionally well placed considering the strength of the film’s cast and genuine premise.

While Sawako Decides is certainly a film that is comical in its expression of everyday life, it’s rather dark humor is nicely implemented throughout and doesn’t overcome the elements of drama, in turn alleviating the film from becoming entirely too comedic for its own good. Considering the subjective nature of humor though—especially that dark of comedy—the film may not be as enjoyable to some as expected given just how tenacious it becomes at times. There are moments within Sawako Decides where the reality of the Sawako’s situation is given some rather cruel treatment and where the film focuses much on the despair of her livelihood. But just as these moments of disheartenment seemingly come to a head, Ishii does a wonderful job of bringing back elements of much needed humor into the fold, negating it from turning entirely into a depressing outlook for the film’s main heroine. This direction certainly allows the film to remain interesting to watch, where else if the comedic elements were removed, Sawako Decides would be entirely too uninspired to stand on its own.

Perhaps the strongest element in keeping the film relatively unconventional is Sawako herself, played here superbly by Hikari Mitsushima. Bringing about the rather subtle nature of Sawako, Hikari does a great job of conveying the frustrated and lethargic mannerisms that is called for by her character. Considering the rather somber nature of Sawako within the film, it was a little surprising to see Hikari’s range as an actress is lessened here. Considering her exuberant acting roles in Sion Sono’s Love Exposure (2009) and Sang-il Lee’s Villain (2010)—all films that showcased Hikari’s diversity and range as an actress—the subdued nature of her role here might come as a surprise for some viewers as well. This extends to the remainder of the cast as well—whether it’s Sawako’s eccentric uncle Nobuo, her eco-friendly boyfriend Kenichi or disappointed father Tadao—the film’s cast is distinctive but somewhat muted in their conveyances. This most certainly stems from Ishii approach as a director, who seemingly advocates for rather deadpan performances throughout his films, and now even in Sawako Decides. Those unaccustomed to Japanese humor may find this approach irritating, boring or even monotonous, but it does deliver an imaginative approach to viewing the rather unremarkable lives of the characters within his previous films and Sawako Decides.

It’s this look into the unremarkable that is perhaps Sawako Decides biggest strength. At its core, the film is an exploration of ordinary people coming to terms with being just that…ordinary people. While the film effectively looks at the life of Sawako, who as a character initially believes her old life is too normal for the likes of her, her transformation from an irresponsible individual to an adult who is accountable for her childish actions is charming, humorous and endearing to say the least. Sawako Decides takes a look at the satisfaction of being an average person and realizing that sometimes that’s all one can be given their circumstances. Helping out in that one corner of the earth where she can, Sawako is representative of a majority of people—she isn’t out to save the entire world, to change society or even better herself—she’s simply doing what has to be done to maintain the family business. I find this a very powerful message considering how many people today tend to reject the fact that they are in fact normal everyday people living a considerably normal life. Besides being within the context of Japan, Ishii’s film tackles a rather universal problem—and does so in the most unconventional manner. This in turn allows to film to be considered a rather uplifting tale of perseverance, acknowledgement and realization. Ultimately, Sawako Decides is a film that certainly has a lot more going for it than one may initially think. Under the deadpan performances, bizarre humor and honest narrative lay a film that elaborates upon the need to feel extraordinary in a rather ordinary world—and coming to terms that one’s purpose in life may be to subscribe to the ordinary. Working as the focal point for Sawako Decides, the film is a mature examination of taking responsibility for one’s past faults and bettering yourself for the future, and it’s Ishii’s most impressive film as of late.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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