Sawako’s life is less than stellar. Given that Japanese director Yûya Ishii opens his film with the titular heroine having a spot of comic colonic irrigation, it invites comparison to a more fundamental element. Sawako lollops out into the lacklustre landscape of a very unglamorous Tokyo, and then heads to her fifth dead-end job, wearing a washed out pink uniform and a resigned expression, as her bosses boss her around, and her slouchy co-workers criticise her attitude and her mediocre love life. The television news hum with fears of global warming, and crime reports are full of parents murdering their children. Beer-swilling Sawako’s resigned motto for life is ‘It can’t be helped’, and her divorcee boyfriend, a jumper knitting, eco-friendly, unimaginative sacked toy maker doesn’t add any sparkle to the darkness. Even the gorilla at the zoo is depressed.
And then her uncle calls with the news that her father, whom Sawako hasn’t seen for five years, is dying form cirrhosis of the liver, and encourages her to return to the countryside and rescue his ailing fresh water clam business. In the hands of Hollywood, the soundtrack would lift with inspiring strings, as Sawako takes a train to her destiny. Here it’s a lonesome accordion and a melancholy drumbeat that accompanies her on her homeward bound train, with her boyfriend and his young daughter along for the ride.
With her mop of dark hair and her engaging face, Hikari Mitsushima is a bright presence. The scenes with her father in the hospital and at home are tender, her first appearance at the clam factory, surrounded by judgemental older women, a study in befuddlement and reluctant responsibility, a delicate contrast to the sometimes too broad sweeps of Ishii’s humour.
Sawako’s past is gradually revealed, the stealing of her best friend’s boyfriend at the age of 18 and her elopement with him, her anger at her father’s affair with a clam factory worker, her continued belief that she’s ‘a sub-middling woman’ and that all she can expect from life is shit, as she ladles sewage onto the family’s vegetable plot.
Nonetheless, Sawako is inspired to change this. Temporarily ditched by her hapless boyfriend, she tries to forge a link with his daughter, a pat metaphor of her own relationship with her dad, and sets about transforming the clam business. Dropping the company song, with its bleakly ironic anthem of ‘blue rivers… mutual co-operation, and bright futures’, she tells it like it is, in a funny, down-with-the-government song that proclaims that ‘our work is tedious and boring’ and the clams come ‘from the bottom of the river’ but are heading ‘into your hearts’.
Yûya Ishii’s film is about ordinary people, who live ordinary lives; they cheat, break up, get dumped, make mistakes, but get on with it. When Sawako’s father dies, a watermelon that’s grown in the vegetable plot is brought along by Sawako to the funeral, a tragicomic mixture of heartbreak and slapstick that reinforces Ishii’s message. Life is mostly crap, but there’s a sweetness in recognising reality, even if it isn’t an awe-inspiring Hollywood happy ever after.