In Yûya Ishii’s Sawako Decides (2010), all the ingredients for a rites of passage rom-com are evident. In a world very similar to the quirky and misunderstood setting of Ishii’s own Girl Sparks (2007), an aspiring middle-class girl will find her way back to her roots and ultimately arrive at happiness.
Hikari Mitsushima plays the Sawako of the film’s title, a ‘middle’ girl who is literally and metaphorically constipated, gulps large amounts of beer and uses the phrase “It cannot be helped” as an excuse for her apathy towards her own existence.
During her meaningless and humiliating job at a toy company, she passively listens to two co-workers talk about men and the global economic crisis. Her limited free time is spent in the company of her boyfriend Kenichi (Masashi Endô) and his daughter Kayoko (Kira Aihara), unable to connect with either of them in any significant or meaningful way.
The film rests on the delicate shoulders of Mitsushima – one cannot help but care for Sawako, even if she does not care about herself. Reminiscent of Mitsushima’s performance in Momoko Ando’s Kakera: A Piece of Our Life (2009), Hikari’s portrayal of the spiritless middle-class girl is more than impressive and a character that could have degenerated into irritation is able to receive sympathy despite her apathy.
Sawako Decides is a slow-burner, with space given for subtle character development, yet Ishii skilfully plays with his narrative and characters and positions them against the other, which often produces some hilarious results. The film is generically different from what a Western audience would classify as comedy – what is funny in Sawako comes from the absurdity of the characters and how they behave and react within unflinchingly realistic situations.
Sawako Decides is not a masterpiece by any strength of the imagination, but remains a pleasure to watch. The simple message of the film – that accepting one’s circumstances does not mean admitting defeat or having to live unhappily – leaves a long-lasting impression in the mind.