FILM Sawako Decides, the most recent feature by the talented 27 year-old Japanese director Yuya Ishii, might not be the best film of 2010 that you never saw, but it certainly ranks as one of last year's funniest — and perhaps more debatably, most feminist.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Ishii double feature "Lost in Japan," which pairs Sawako with Ishii's previous film To Walk With You (2009), is an all- too-brief introduction to a director whose modestly budgeted films about losers, misfits, and the socially marginalized in a Japan as depressed as they are have been garnering critical praise and catching the attention of festival programmers since his 2006 debut Rebel, Giro's Love. Sawako Decides leaves no doubt that Ishii is one to watch (and to watch repeatedly).
Five years after winding up in Tokyo after a failed post-high school elopement, 20-something Sawako (a wonderful Hikari Mitsushima) has landed herself a thankless pink collar job serving tea at the offices of a toy manufacturer and an equally lame coworker boyfriend, whose young daughter from a previous marriage seems just as indifferent to Sawako as her father is. A human doormat in the extreme, Sawako is the first to agree the chorus of detractors that surround her that she's, "not really much ... a lower-middling type, really." This routine existence is upended when her boyfriend arranges for Sawako to take over her estranged and terminally ill father's freshwater clam packing business, and Sawako must face down the rural community — most notably, the pack of sniping older female employees she now oversees — who view her as a selfish deserter.
Although Sawako is a far cry from Emma Stone's sass-spouting Olive in Easy A (2010), Ishii still wants his underdog to come out on top, and eventually the fates smile kindly, albeit crookedly, on her. By the time the film reaches the climactic scene in which a newly-emboldened Sawako leads her shocked employees in a rousing anti-government anthem, there is no denying that she has — to borrow the title phrase of another recent coming-of-age film anchored by a strong female character — true grit, and that Ishii is not only a wildly inventive filmmaker, but one who possesses a true heart.
Ishii — who also frequently edits and writes his films — combines humor and pathos in a way that mimics his bumbling antiheroes' oft-failed attempts to integrate themselves within the world around them: jokes are frequently followed up a beat too late so as to go practically unnoticed or are delivered in a deadpan that verges on D.O.A. He also has a penchant for peppering his narratives with absurdist detours, out-of-the-blue dance numbers, and enough idiosyncratic supporting characters to make Miranda July proud.
Unlike July's work, however, Ishii's films leave no aftertaste of preciousness. Ishii's characters are often as laughably insufferable as their peers make them out to be, but Ishii takes their funny-sad struggles to exist quite seriously, putting his work more in line with that of, say, Woody Allen or even Todd Solondz, than of anything Michael Cera has mumbled his way through. Ishii's films are "existential" — a descriptor they're frequently tagged with — to the extent that his characters, through much hilarious trial and error, transform their failure to achieve what society expects of them into a new ethics for living.