Mitsuko Delivers: Busan Film Review

A loser’s motivational guide that’s wry and satirical but without much bite

Japanese independent director Yuya Ishii introduces a 24-year-old pregnant drifter who is so relentlessly upbeat she bosses the saddest losers into adopting her optimism.

Two things dominate Mitsuko Delivers: happy-snappy slogans and power naps, which the eponymous heroine believes can conquer the recession-hit world and enable anyone to live with pride and coolness. Following Sawako Decides, his wickedly droll creation of a downtrodden heroine who lacerates herself for merely existing, prolific Japanese independent director Yuya Ishii introduces her evil twin: a 24-year-old pregnant drifter who is so relentlessly upbeat she bosses the saddest losers into adopting her optimism. 

Decides marked Ishii’s first foray into semi-mainstream cinema. Mitsuko Delivers edges even closer in that direction through his employment of eye candy idols and broadly comic feel-good factors. In the process he loses some of his social subversiveness. Nevertheless, he achieves a deft balance between accessibility and quirkiness so that it will keep festival invitations coming while generating moderately good business back home and in specialized overseas releases.  

 The eponymous heroine makes a career out of studying the shape of clouds and following where they float. Her motto is: “Wait until the wind blows, then go with it.” At 24, jobless, penniless, knocked up and dumped by the African American she followed to California, Mitsuko (Riisa Naka) is more overcome by the plight of a laid off worker interviewed on TV than she is worried about her own situation. Leaving home with no drama, she tells the taxi driver to take her to where the cloud drifts. 

That cloud takes her back to her childhood neighborhood, an old, derelict tenement that looks like the set of Ozu's Record of a Tenement Gentleman. She invites herself into the home of her bedridden landlady, Kiyo (Miyoko Inagawa), and proceeds to “fix” everybody’s life. She starts with Yoichi (Aoi Nakamura), her childhood sweetheart who now runs his uncle Jiro’s failing diner. She browbeats Jiro (Ryo Ishibashi) into expressing his long-hidden love for a cafe owner (Keiko Saito).

Through scenes from Mitsuko’s childhood, Ishii traces how she got her attitude from the landlady who, despite becoming widowed before her honeymoon and living with an unexploded bombshell under the floorboards, exhorts everyone to be “iki”  (live coolly). 

In creating this delightful if sometimes infuriatingly helpful heroine, Ishii promotes spontaneity and fearlessness in the face of the unknown. Mitsuko is an anomaly to mainstream Japanese culture, which pressurizes everyone to plan everything, follow the herd, be self-effacing and never cause others trouble. As such, it is meant to be uplifting to see her brush aside her obstretician’s fretful warnings about her “unstable birth” by saying “my life will always be unstable, but I have confidence.” 

All this is fine as light-hearted commercial fare, and Ishii boosts the mood with his characteristic witty dialogue and deadpan characters. However, the scenarios are so brawling and farcical andperformances are exaggerated with a cheeky wink by the veteran older cast. So a viewer wonders whether to indulge the film’s joyous humor — or see it as a pastiche of feel-good, motivational films extolling wishful thinking and idealized Japanese values. Youth idols Naka and Nakamura are likable but barely transcend their TV-style acting.

 Made with a higher budget than Ishii’s earlier features (with even the luxury of CGI  clouds), production quality remains mediocre with certain interior scenes displaying slightly glaring yellowish color texture and uneven lighting.

Busan International Film Festival, A Window on Asian cinema

Production company: Mitsuko Delivers Film Partners.

Cast: Riisa Naka, Aoi Nakamura, Ryo Ishibashi, Keiko Saito, Inagawa Miyoko, Momoko Oono.

Director-screenwriter: Yuya Ishii.

Producers: Hiroshi Kogure, Sachiko Sone, Yuichi Shibahara.

Director of photography: Yukihiro Okimura.

Production designer: Tomoyuki Maruo.

Music: Takashi Watanabe.

Costume designer: Kyoko Baba.

Editor: Naoichiro Sagara.

Sales: Pony Canyon Inc.

No rating, 109 minutes.