Yuya Ishii's prolific indie filmmaking career turned him into a festival darling. "Sawako Decides" seems to be a springboard to more mainstream platforms. The film is dominated by an irrepressible heroine, classified as a "loser dog" in Japan, and it celebrates her stoic struggles to overcome social rejection, love and financial woes with wry humor and racy storytelling. "Sawako" will get its fill of festival invitations even if it lacks the trenchant social remarks or the delicious nastiness of his other works.
Sawako (Hikari Mitsushima) first appears reclining on a couch for colon irrigation, wondering wistfully if her emotional baggage could be flushed out too. She continues to land in other uncomfortable positions. At her fifth temp job at a toy company, she gets her skirt sprayed with pee and endures jeering for being single. Dates with her fifth boyfriend Kenichi (Masashi Endo) are an awkward threesome including his unaffectionate daughter Kayoko (Kira Aihara).
When she is recalled home to run her sick father's floundering clam-packing factory, the workers and townsfolk makes her feel as useful as ditch water. Kenichi, who tags along to freeload, runs off with Sawako's childhood friend.
Ishii portrays painful humiliations to deadpan comic effect without belittling the victims of such humiliations. His talent for sharp dialogue enlivens the drab small town community he depicts, while exposing a harsh group dynamic that writes off a person for erring once -- like the way he juxtaposes the workers' insolence to Sawako with slogans on their lockers saying: "Smiling face. True heart. Gratitude."
As Sawako, Mitsushima (the firebrand heroine of "Love Exposure") chews up the screen, inspiring awe rather than pity for her impassioned pleas for acceptance. But Sawako's exhortation for mediocre people to unite and do their best (to the score of "Rocky"), and how everyone eventually rallies around her to save the business is a fairytale formula culled from Japanese TV drama.
For all its human insight, the film does not challenge the status quo that makes life so miserable for non-achievers. Sawako is as tough as a sand bag but sand bags don't punch back. Her favorite phrase is: "It can't be helped." It underlines her tolerance for the despicable Kenichi, whom she doesn't even love: "I'm stuck with him for life because I am below average." Ultimately, the film advocates aggressive defeatism.
Production values are thrifty but resourcefully deployed to accentuate the unglamorous environment.