Mitsuko Delivers Review: Overly Quirky, Emotionally Vague Dramedy

Armchair philosophy and scarcely likable characters make Yûya Ishii's disappointing latest feature more of a challenge than a treat.

rating: 2.5

Mitsuko Delivers belongs to a very small subset of world cinema that arrives on our shores; it is not a refined, robustly constructed drama like we are typically used to from abroad (after all, we usually get the very best of the litter). Instead it shares a more common DNA with American comedies, albeit still retaining a distinctly Japanese flavour. For these reasons Yûya Ishii's (Sawako Decides) oddball concoction isn't exactly a snug and satisfying fit, even though it has its share of amusing moments. Mitsuko (Riisa Naka) is pregnant and broke, having just split up with her American boyfriend, but withholding this from her parents, instead keeping up appearances that she is still in the U.S. With her head in the sky quite literally, she ends up following an amorphous cloud formation around town, soon enough arriving at the desolate tenement block she briefly lived in as a child, hoping to change the community for the better with her perky attitude, and also attempting to resolve a few personal issues that inevitably abound. This premise is unquestionably quite a flowery one - even for the standards of something desperately clinging to the Amélie school of cutesy storytelling - but the distinguishing feature here is Mitsuko's attitude; she is spunky, imposing herself on people not simply because she is a fussy pregnant woman, but because that is who she is. It is a facet that is liable to divide viewers, some appreciating her unbound candour, while many - likely more - finding it wearisome by film's end, overexerted and not particularly endearing. And that is why it fumbles when put up against something like Jean-Pierre Jeunet's expertly-assembled quirkfest; Audrey Tatou's titular character was effervescent, charming and appealing, whereas Mitsuko is a much tougher cookie, obtuse and often impenetrable. While festival circuit murmurings might have compared this to Jeunet's film, the comparison is unflattering and unearned. Its lack of cultural refinement is not a critique as such, and the film might oddly benefit from it; this is as daft as anything myriad silly American comedies have churned out recently; note one scene in which a man claims he cheated on his wife by accident, walking into the wrong room in the dark. There are even some gross-out moments at the expense of Mitsuko's bed-ridden former landlady. These moments, despite their levity, might occur at the expense of any social point Ishii might try to make, though; the grim reality of the 1990s recession is relayed to us adequately in flashback form, and further embodied by Mitsuko's return to that same decrepit tenement in the present. Drawing parallel between the 90s downturn and our current one seems rather obvious - as does an oblique reference to the after-effects of World War II - but the sentiment, of helping one another out in times of turmoil, is the film's sweetest comment, even if it comes off a little ham-fisted through its repetition. This is not a film composed with much finesse. There are plenty of instances throughout where, if viewers are able to hang up their preconceptions about what foreign cinema typically should be, it is probably a jaunty enough venture. Disappointingly, though, Ishii's fascination with the notion of "coolness" quickly stifles any comic or dramatic traction; it is a Japanese cultural aesthetic liable to become lost on Western audiences as it is not intended in the same manner as we would use the word, which above all suggests poor translation. One of Mitsuko's especially egregious remarks sticks in the mind: "If the mom isn't cool, the baby won't want to be born into this world." Probably more interesting than the pregnancy itself is the romance between Mitsuko and Yoichi, a young chef who runs a restaurant with his uncle, Jiro. It is the classic story of long lost love we've seen countless times, and while initially told with a palpable sense of longing, it quickly becomes clouded by a muddled narrative in which Mitsuko revives their fledgling business by means that are never made acutely clear. The point might be that powerless people sometimes just need a nudge in the right direction, but Ishii's vague treatment diminishes the meaning. The film's heart is certainly in the right place, and it is unquestionably a nice idea - of bringing the desolate community together under one roof to serve a collective good - but it is too cutesy, too emotionally immature, and finally, too irredeemably silly at its overblown climax, dragging long past the logical departure point. Armchair philosophy and scarcely likable characters make Yûya Ishii's disappointing latest feature more of a challenge than a treat. Mitsuko Delivers is on limited release in UK cinemas now.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.