The main problem with Mitsuko Delivers, Yûya Ishii’s latest comedy-drama, is that the eponymous heroine is so thoroughly unlikeable.
Heavily pregnant and living alone in Tokyo, 24-year-old Mitsuko (Riisa Naka) does her best to rejuvenate a struggling community, help a short-order cook in both business and romance, and, eventually, find her place in the world. But she’s boorish, bossy and immature.
From her unsuccessful attempts at making friends with a new neighbour – by barging into her house and offering salty homemade pickles,ofcourse–tobeingrebukedbyapair of nervous removal men, it’s hard to feel any sympathy toward a character who is so pushy and socially inept.
Even though she means well, Mitsuko lacks the whimsical charm of, say, Audrey Tautou’s Amélie (another single lady who dedicates herself to helping others), and it’s no real surprise that she’s alone, estranged from her baby’s father and deceiving her doting parents, who think she lives in California.
Mitsuko does have a spiritual side – a deep-felt belief that in times of stress, one should take a nap until the wind “blows your way” and something better comes along. One such repose results in a taxi-ride across town, where, now penniless, she arrives at the run-down tenement where she lived briefly as a child.
It’s here that we discover the source of her brash nature – the no-nonsense landlady (Miyoko Inagawa), now infirm, who first taught Mitsuko the notion of living an iki or ‘cool’ life, which becomes a recurring theme within the film.
Herein lies another problem: iki is a Japanese aesthetic ideal of refinement, simplicity and spontaneity, something akin to ‘chic’ in English. To translate it as merely ‘cool’ (complete with quotation marks) feels forced and anything but iki, particularly when the performances are so exaggerated.
This feeling of being lost in translation continues with Ishii’s approach to multiculturalism. Having lived in the US, Mitsuko peppers her speech with English phrases – possibly to reflect her can-do attitude – and yet she crudely describes her former boyfriend as "American. Or... African. I’m not sure but he was kinda big and really black."
This lack of subtlety pervades Mitsuko Delivers. Ishii dabbles in social commentary through flashbacks to a happier era and heavy- handed dialogue reminding us that, 'times are tough', 'we're all struggling' and 'more than ever, we need to help each other'.
There’s also a prolonged final act that reaches new levels of shrill. Tensions heighten, the baby is on its way, Mitsuko’s parents arrive and characters are reduced to yelling at one another.
A female-led comedy from one of Japan’s up-and-coming directors.
So long, so not "cool".
Take a nap until something better comes along.