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‘Su-chan Mai-chan Sawako-san’

For three 30-something Japanese women, getting older is no laughing matter

by Mark Schilling

Yonkoma manga, or four-cell gag comics, are popular here with both sexes and all ages, but they account for relatively few of the many hit live-action films made from manga. For one thing, it’s not so easy to string all those gags together into a three-act story. Doable, yes. Done well? Not so often.

Based on Miri Masuda’s “Su-chan” yonkoma manga about average working women dealing with real-life problems and annoyances, scriptwriter Sachiko Tanaka and director Osamu Minorikawa have crafted a film that has a real narrative arc instead of being a series of blackout skits.

Fans of the comic, however, will be relieved to know that the film offers substantial helpings of its wry humor, often taking the form of interior monologues whose blunt honesty totally contradicts the character’s polite words and pasted-on smiles. (“I wish these guys would go to hell — I guess that’s pretty harsh,” is one sample.) Teachers of Japanese language and culture wishing to illustrate the concepts of honne (true feelings and desires) and tatemae (public face) need look no further.

Yes, the film ambles rather than soars, but it is also true to the actual choices women face in this society and, having made them, the not-always-pleasant consequences. Despite the observational gags skewering various (often male) targets and Shin Kono’s obtrusively perky score, “Su-chan Mai-chan Sawako-san (Sue, Mai and Sawa: Righting the Girl Ship)” is not another feel-good, girl-power entertainment. Watching the closing scenes, I imagined classic director Mikio Naruse rewriting them to excise the J-pop sentimentality and filming them with his characteristic emotional realism and underlying melancholy.

The three title women — Su-chan (Ko Shibasaki), Mai-chan (Yoko Maki) and Sawako-san (Shinobu Terajima) — are friends who once worked together but have since gone their separate ways. Now on the far side of 30, they are reaching turning points in their lives.

Su-chan, who occupies the story’s center, has worked her way up to a full-time job at a stylish cafe, while coming up with new menu ideas (some sounding rather bizarre) and crushing on her nerdy but well-meaning and good-looking manager (Arata Iura). A member of the awkward squad herself, Su-chan is halfway resigned to a romanceless future.

Mai-chan, by contrast, is a skilled negotiator of the social/business rapids as a saleswoman for an office-equipment maker. But she is also fed up with her lazy, insensitive boss, who too often takes her for granted, not to mention younger female colleagues who regard her as well on the way to hagdom. Then there is her married lover, who is forever making lame excuses not to see her.

Finally, Sawako-san works from her family home as a Web designer, but much of her time is spent helping her mother care for her senile and bedridden grandmother. Despite the seeming freedom of her schedule, she feels bound by obligation and love, while longing to escape. Then she reconnects with an old classmate who is the future successor to a local noodle shop and, miracle of miracles, they begin to date.

As the three leads, Shibasaki, Maki and Terajima scrupulously avoid the cartoony acting endemic to live-action manga adaptations. Lively and charming when together, their characters are also distinct individuals: Su-chan with her heart in her work, but lonely in the crowd; Mai-chan striding determinedly down office corridors, while wanting to be anywhere else; Sawako-san gazing at her grandmother lovingly — and wondering if this is all there is.

In his masterpieces about middle-aged women facing a similar closing down of possibilities, romantic and otherwise, Naruse’s answer to a question like Sawako-san’s was an unyielding “yes.” Minorikawa’s softer-hearted film doesn’t go that far — its English subtitle, after all, is “Righting the Girl Ship” — but it also doesn’t give its three heroines easy outs.

Instead it suggests that rather than long for the big happy ending, it’s better to take life day by day and, whenever you can manage it, share a scrumptious picnic basket with friends. That sounds doable, doesn’t it?

“Su-chan Mai-chan Sawako-san” fun fact: Miri Masuda’s “Su-chan” manga has been collected into four volumes by publisher Gentosha that have sold 270,000 copies. None have been translated into English.