Amusing, but oddly charmless. It got a theatrical run in London last year, which puzzled Tomoko and me to the extent that we were trying to work out why.
It's about a young woman called Mitsuko (Riisa Naka) in the last month of a pregnancy she's keeping secret from her parents. They also think she's living in California. She's not. She's bumming around in Tokyo with no money and a philosophy of life that involves (a) following clouds, (b) resolving tricky situations by taking a nap. She also has the manners of an unusually short-tempered rhino and talks like someone from World War Two. (Yes, the movie's set in the modern day. Mitsuko's speech patterns are copied from an abrasive but awe-inspiring landlady she had when she was a child.) For example, throughout the entire film, I don't think she ever says "arigatou". Unbelievable. Occasionally instead she'll say "sankyuu", which is the Japanese transliteration of "thank you" and another thing that eventually started annoying me.
Her favourite word is "iki", which is practically archaic and the subtitles translate as "cool" in inverted commas. Everything is either "iki" or not "iki". Even the near-fossilized landlady she got this from asks her to give it a break.
The weird thing is that underneath all that, this is the feel-good movie you'd expect from the DVD cover. Mitsuko is a generous person who listens to everyone's hard luck stories, cries when emotional, is utterly dependable (eventually) and inspires everyone else to become better people. She turns a restaurant into a success by, um, bullying everyone to go there. (I'm being frivolous.) It's as if the writer/director was thinking of the formula of "charming, quirky, heart-warming comedy", but wondered how it would work without the "charming" bit.
On top of that, everyone in the film is staggeringly stupid. Ryo Ishibashi's character is so socially awkward that he's barely capable of speech, while you'll want to scream at the woman who's put her life on hold waiting for him to propose to her. The finale is a riot of everyone standing around being useless in a situation where practical help is urgently required. Possibly the most jaw-dropping "what an idiot" scene is the one where Old Woman 1 marches in on bedridden Old Woman 2 to tell her that all medical problems can be cured through force of will, then marches out again.
In some ways, I quite liked it. Every so often it made me laugh, which is impressive given that I'd have happily seen the entire cast drop into a pit. Tomoko though found it nothing but irritating.
My best theory is that if you're not Japanese, you won't realise just how rude Mitsuko is. Anyone would think her obnoxious and pushy, but Japan is the politest country in the world. She's a freak. She's a "do not talk like this" monster... but presumably us Londoners are a bunch of thuggish louts and we happily watched this in cinemas without wanting to reach into the screen and strangle her.
The performances are good. Riisa Naka does heroic work in a challenging lead role, although I'm fascinated by the "what ifs" of what might have been with certain other actresses. I like her stoic little nods when asked about money, for instance. She also finds a slightly stony-faced way of crying. The other actors are doing just fine and I disagree strongly with the London Time Out reviewer who found them broad. Blame the script, not the cast. They're being asked to play socially dysfunctional cretins. I liked the cast and I thought they were finding truth in characters that could have been played as one-dimensional stereotypes. There are also two child actors in the flashbacks, chosen to look impressively similar to their adult counterparts, and they're pretty good too except for the marriage proposal scene. I don't hold that against them. That was a bit too much weight to put on child actors and even that scene they don't murder or anything.
Incidentally, the writer/director is the industrious young Yuya Ishii, best known for Sawako Decides (apparently similar to this, but better). He's also made a film called Bare-assed Japan, which makes me like him.
Is this a bad film? No. Is it funny? Yes, occasionally, in a way that somehow manages to be broad, yet understated. Would I recommend it? Maybe, if you've never been to Japan and/or you like unlikeable characters. There's a strong underdog element, with the economy going belly-up and everyone involved being a casualty of that. People are unemployed or bankrupt. They live in rickety tenements with unexploded wartime bombs and they try to help each other. This is strong and it does a lot to help pull the film back... but unfortunately an idiot with financial problems is still an idiot. Check out the guy being interviewed on TV at the beginning. He was fired six months ago and he still hasn't managed to tell his wife, yet he's saying all that to a camera. Better hope your better half doesn't watch daytime TV, mate.
Just don't trust the DVD cover. It shows both Riisa Naka and Aoi Nakamura smiling, which I don't remember seeing in the film.