Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Review: Mitsuko Delivers

Up the Duff

Mitsuko (Riisa Naka) is heavily pregnant. The father is her American ex, but an unfortunately timed break-up has forced her to return from California to Tokyo. The reasons for her pregnancy aren't elaborated upon further, because that's not what the film is about. Unwilling to let her pachinko-parlour owning parents find out about her situation (they think she's still in America), Mitsuko instead decides to hide out in a run-down and old-fashioned tenement where her family once spent a few months due to some financial troubles when she was but a young lass. Overflowing with pre-natal energy, Mitsuko makes it her business to sort out the lives of her old neighbours, including struggling restauranteur and childhood sweetheart Yoishi (Aoi Nakamura).

Director Yuya Ishii is fast-proving himself am accomplished writer/director of strong, offbeat female protagonists. In his previous film Sawako Decides, Hikari Mitsushima's Sawako was a frustrated young woman who eventually learned to embrace the mediocrity and broken dreams of the situations she found herself in. Mitsuko, on the other hand, is much more proactive from the off. She's a tour-de-force of a creation, swooping back into characters' lives with such ferocity that they find it impossible to disobey her demands. She forces them to reject apathy, inactivity and shyness, and they can only go along with it. In a great scene, Mitsuko wrangles some patrons for Yoishi's ailing restaurant offscreen. It occurs offscreen because we don't need to see the wrangling process - Mitsuko's intense charisma is abundantly clear.

It's a rarity for me to claim that a performance carries a film, but Naka is a revelation here. It's remarkable that she's able to completely dominate the screen at such a young age (Naka is only twenty two years-old). It's a performance full of madcap energy, emotional depth and quiet frustration. A lesser actress would have made the character annoying rather than loveable, but Naka owns what could have potentially been an altogether more irritating character. Here we have a wonderful young actress portraying an active, compelling character that is altogether removed than your typical melodramatic Japanese acting performances.

It's a good thing Riisa Naka is so great, because Ishii occasionally falters with the execution. Often, it's a thoroughly enjoyable ride. There's quite a bit of light thematic depth to the piece, and the contemporary recessionary setting is, quite unusually, realised with wit and optimism, while never ignoring the human cost of the downturn. It's also a celebration of (or perhaps an obituary for) community spirit. However, the director is sometimes unable to efficiently balance the tone of the piece - not funny enough for comedy, not dramatic enough for drama. He also fumbles with some over-extended flashbacks in the second act. They're mildly engaging, but never match the energy of the core narrative. A few weaker scenes throughout the film also restrict the film's forward momentum.

Still, Mitsuko Delivers is mostly charming fun. The resolutions and emotional peaks particularly are handled in a playfully satirical manner: happy endings delivered as amusing punchlines rather than moments of great drama. The characters are treated with affection throughout, and the grander thematic and social ponderings of the filmmaker enhance rather than overwhelm the story. Mitsuko Delivers therefore emerges as smart, mostly engaging entertainment despite a few rough edges. And while a low-budget and offbeat Japanese film such as this is destined for obscurity, Riisa Naka's breakthrough performance will hopefully find the cult appreciation it deserves. If there's one thing Mitsuko truly delivers, it's one of the year's most memorable protagonists.

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