It matters that Yuya Ishii is 27 years old not just because he's put out six films in the past five years, but also because they're so good. To prove this point, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screens a pair of recent Ishii efforts this weekend, aptly describing them as "existential comedies."
Not just an impish and sensitive soul, Ishii is a major talent. There is great charm in his goofy sincerity, but also real ambition. You get the sense of a bright young man who grew up in postmodern Japan minding his own business, then one day discovered everything around him to be beautifully preposterous and decided to investigate.
Sure, we can talk about plot. In To Walk Beside You, an orphaned teenager (Ryu Morioka) elopes with his teacher (Maki Meguro), then pretends to be a famous baseball player to impress a kid, also parentless, whom he meets in the library. (Note: There is a famous baseball player named Yuya Ishii.) Later, with strange enthusiasm, a young woman wants him to pick up her beagle's poo. Meanwhile, and also with strange enthusiasm, his new wife wants him to study law, so she takes a demeaning job in order to support him. Unbeknownst to her and against her wishes, he takes a demeaning job of his own, for which his boss requires, among other things, a dance number. Then he sees his wife's co-workers tormenting her, and makes an awkward try for revenge. But he winds up befriending one of the tormenters, a young pregnant woman who has run away from home. "Find her and abort that damn baby!" the runaway's mother tells the cops. There's more, but why spoil it?
The title character in Sawako Decides goes through jobs and boyfriends like this filmmaker goes through movies, except with much less apparent satisfaction. No one seems to approve of Sawako (Hikari Mistushima), including herself. Presently she returns from Tokyo to her rural hometown, where she must face down her ailing father (Kotaro Shiga) and a cruel clan of clam ladies. (Her father owns a clam-packing business.) What else? The movie begins with the administration of a colonic. It also makes thematic use of elopement and demeaning jobs and a musically demanding boss. In the background, TV news seems always to be reporting on horribly violent domestic disputes. Early on, Sawako says, "I am crying. I didn't realize it." Later, she tells a little girl, "Look, you're nothing special. You'll just have to tough it out." But when she says this, her heart is light. It's an epiphany, a glorious relief.
Taken together, To Walk Beside You and Sawako Decides make for a double-feature of rare vitality. Each film deals with the absurd but worthy quest for self-actualization in an almost unbearably abashed society. Each has a singular way of working itself up into mystification, curling with glee, and then unpacking itself to discover what it's really about. And each seems to be searching, scrambling, competing with itself (and perhaps with its predecessors) to become more true. If Yuya Ishii isn't one to watch, who is?
Lost in Japan: The Existential Comedies of Yuya Ishii plays Thursday, January 13, through Sunday, January 15, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. For tickets, showtimes and more information, visit ybca.org.