Mitsuko Delivers (Cert PG)
1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 109 minutes approx.
Mitsuko Hara (Riisa Naka) is a pragmatic twenty four-year old woman with a propensity for helping others; she also happens to be nine months pregnant to an American who deserted her. Broke and forced to move out of her apartment Mitsuko puts her fate in the hands of a cloud which she follows to a small desolate tenement where she once lived with her parents as a child. There Mitsuko meets up with the now immobile old landlady Kiyoshi (Miyoko Inagawa) and takes care of her, and Yoichi Kodama (Aoi Nakamura), the young boy who has been in love in with Mitsuko since her previous stay fifteen years earlier. Yoichi works in the small restaurant run by his uncle Jiro (Ryo Ishibashi) which is suffering from slow trade and he is too shy to declare his love for café owner (Keiko Saito). Despite her expectant state, Mitsuko is determined to improve the lives of everyone around her.
On the surface this latest outing from director Yuya Ishii sounds like a Japanese nod towards the seminal French comedy Amélie as both protagonists put the happiness and welfare of others before their own. However while Amélie’s comedy was off the wall, charming and inventive Mitsuko Delivers comedy strokes are broad and very dry. For anyone not familiar with Japanese humour or indeed its culture, a lot of the content may be too subtle to connect with. The laughs are infrequent but don’t let that put you off as there is still a quirky human interest tale to be enjoyed here.
Mitsuko, it has to be said, is not a likeable lead (conversely the younger Mitsuko – portrayed in a delightful turn by Momoka Oono – is as cute as a button) despite her altruistic ways. She is curt, never smiles and imposes herself on others to the point they push her away. To us here in the west, she is a modern woman who takes no guff while in Japan a woman like Mitsuko would be seen as something of a maverick. Yet she thinks nothing of giving away her last few coins to an out of work salaryman who is too scared to tell his wife about his job loss.
Even when she is doing a good deed, Mitsuko cannot help but be bossy, something she inherited via osmosis from Kiyoshi. Through a flashback we meet the tough old bird when Mitsuko aged nine and her parents Yoshitaka (Shiro Namiki) and Sanae (Miyako Takeuchi) go into hiding at the tenement while the fuss over the debts on their pachinko parlour blow over. Straight away Kiyoshi takes no nonsense and scares the life out of the Hara family with her directness, bossiness and the small mater of an unexploded bomb under the house!
Kiyoshi also preaches about being “cool” – in other words showing dignity in times of hardship – which young Mitsuko absorbs and takes to heart as her own personal philosophy in later life. Case in point: Mitsuko’s parents think she is enjoying the high life in California; Mitsuko didn’t think it was “cool” to tell them the truth about her still being in Japan and heavily pregnant. This is a recurring theme which fuels Mitsuko’s unsolicited attempts to let others rely on her at a time when she should be resting up.
One could surmise from this that Mitsuko has some concerns about being a mother, hence wanting everything to be “cool” for the baby’s arrival although this is not explored in the film. Slowly though, Mitsuko’s positive attitude begins to yield results and the people at the tenement begin to respond to it with Yoichi’s restaurant being the major benefactor (or it would if Mitsuko didn’t offer everything on the house!). Jiro also gets a helping hand of sorts when Mitsuko intervenes on Jiro’s behalf with the café owner which leads to the film’s manic finale.
In keeping with Ishii’s other works, this is another fairly low key and moody affair that moves at a leisurely pace, often mirroring the ennui of the residents of the tenement. Indeed, aside from Mitsuko, the other characters are sluggish often to the point of inertia; Jiro and Yoichi for example literally stand motionless in their restaurant silently and glumly staring at nothing until the arrival of a customer, and even then the response is less than rapid and taciturn.
Such periods of inactivity brings the mood down for the viewer and runs the risk of putting off less patient viewers. It would seem that Ishii was saving the best till last as the final ten minutes are a hive of frantic and excitable action from the cast with an amusing and subtle dig at the normal movie hysteria and panic portrayed surrounding the advent of an impromptu birth.
In casting Riisa Naka as Mitsuko both Ishii and Naka are taking a gamble as the latter has hitherto been known for her surly or energetic schoolgirl roles such as Time Traveller. Having now reached the grand old age of twenty-three Naka is keen to branch out into more adult roles – as seen in Zebraman II and Moteki – and remarkably, she manages to slip quite comfortably into this challenging role although whether Mitsuko was meant to be as dislikeable as she comes across and more inspirational as Naka found her to be remains a mystery. Unfortunately for the rest of the cast, their characters are largely one dimensional leaving them to do the best they can with these limitations.
If one is to compare Mitsuko Delivers to Ishii’s other films such as Sawako Decides then this one might take a few more viewings to “click” but fans of offbeat Japanese cinema will find plenty here to embrace.
“Making Of” feature
Third Window Films Trailers
Rating – ***
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