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Sawako Decides

by Kevin Langson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jan 11, 2011
Sawako Decides

In the beginning of Japanese youngster Yuya Ishii's latest film, Sawako Decides, his uninspired protagonist is decidedly indecisive, "it can't be helped" being the overused mantra of blithe acceptance that carries her through the banalities and insults of her personal assistant job at a toy manufacturing company, as well as her disappointing though increasingly complicated personal life. It may seem absurd that Sawako smiles graciously when her boss barks at her to clean up the urine of the toddler that is clearly underwhelmed by the toy (incompetently designed by Sawako's boyfriend, Arai) being tested and that the boss declares that she deserves the injury-inducing attack that a toddler administers as she cleans, but this is part of the satirical absurdity that makes Ishii's film entertaining. The managers are ruthless, conformist drones, and the laborers are duller than a deserted bar. If the forceful and repetitious treatment of Sawako's passivity and her coworkers' vapidity initially seems cloying, it later makes sense as Ishii's rhythm and his means of making comedy of life's ineluctable mediocrity. The earth may quake a bit when Sawako does actually make a decision, but it will more or less settle back into place.

With the exception of Arai's reticent-in-the-face-of-turmoil young daughter, Kayoko, and Sawako's dying father, the characters throughout the story are comically extreme; in this way, Ishii critiques various types, using, for example, the hostile and small-minded working women who shun Sawako when she first returns to her hometown to run her father's freshwater clam packing company and the fatuously enthusiastic Tokyo academic who fetishizes small town laborers. However important these caricatures, along with the deprecation of his main characters, may be to the tone of Ishii's film, they are ultimately secondary to the humanism he employs to make us invest in Sawako's plight as she battles her demons of self-doubt in order to assume a dignified position in the milieu she had fled five years prior. Or are they? There seems to be a conflict of sorts between the sympathy that Ishii conjures towards Sawako and the resounding reality that they are relative losers. On one hand, there is sympathetic pleasure to be derived from the scene in which she becomes emboldened enough to give a cathartic speech to her workers, decrying their denunciation of her in light of the fact that they are all ordinary and fallible, yet this also serves as a reiteration of her self-perceived simplicity. Ishii perhaps most poignantly portrays this self-perception when in an angry confrontation with Arai, Sawako proclaims, "you are like our planet...you are only getting worse...but I'm nothing special either...I have no choice, so that's why I'll marry you". Curiously, this is not an insecurity to be overcome but a self-realization that is continuously reaffirmed (hilariously when all the clam packing women break out in an invigorating chorus of, "we are lower middle", in celebration of their humble status). Regardless of whether one views Ishii's statement as veiled condescension towards the working class or a humanistic declaration of dignity within mediocrity, this film is a diversion-packed tale that will likely leave viewers pleasantly bemused.


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