Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers

Title: Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers
Rating: 3.5/5
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Starring: Juri Ueno, Yu Aoi
Director: Satoshi Miki
Language: Japanese

It may have been a while since I last dived into this directors work, having previously been enchanted by his gentle brand of comedy in “Adrift in Tokyo” and “Instant Swamp,” and this trademark style is once again at play here. Following the story of Suzume (literally translated as 'Sparrow') and her mundane life as a housewife, she feels her life descending into monotony; conversations with her husband degraded to nothing more than “have you fed the turtle,” her childhood friend often too busy to visit and no other events to break up her to day to day life. Stumbling upon a wanted poster for spies, she decides to call and apply for the position hoping for a little bit more excitement, and what follows turns her life around in an entirely unassuming way.

The comedy isn't as obvious as many others, even compared to his own works this feels somewhat tame in the lack of individual punchlines or specific moments, but instead it maintains a constant light and 'fluffy' tone, largely brought about by the rather simple idea of trying to be as inconspicuous as possible whilst being introduced to the secretive world of spying, even though very little in the way of actual spy work ever happens. Instead, much of the plot feels parodical of the spy genre, particularly given the fact that the couple that teach her aren't really that good at blending in and seem to stick out wherever they go, and when the police decide to start a hunt for these spies – who really haven't done anything at all wrong at this point – it all feels rather jovial and inconsequential; like adults who never really grew out of playing children's games.

You could even go as far to say it defies the normal conventions a film strives for given that there is no real climax but rather a distinct anti-climax. As our protagonist spends the course of the film determined to be as unnoticeable as possible, our normal format involving an interesting sequence of events seems replaced by non-events of little note at all, with any tension emerging from attempting to make them as unmemorable as possible with all the fervent devotion as you could hope for. And this could all fall flat if the characters themselves didn't fill this void and keep things interesting to watch; the couple who have been in the game so long that they know all the tricks of the trade and yet still manage to be clumsy, sporting shirts bearing the USSR's 'hammer and sickle' and behaving like an old married couple, to the ramen salesman reknowned for his “so-so” ramen, and all the other small parts dotted around with their own small roles to play.

But none of it could have worked if it wasn't tethered together by the performance by Juri Ueno who is worth watching if only for her adorable sneer of 'reh-reh-reh-reh' when she successfully accomplishes an act displaying pointless spy skills, like getting a dog to stop barking at her. Her constant sincere questioning of precisely how one would go about certain mundane actions in a completely 'ordinary' way; what do you order on a menu that's so unmemorable the waitress can't remember who had what? How do you drive in a completely normal way? What does the unassuming average housewife buy when grocery shopping? it's this element that makes the film work, and the more she overthinks such tiny details the more the most inconsequential event seems to be given gravity, and when something of note occurs she must use what she has learnt to make sure nobody remembers who she was. It all sounds rather bizarre but serves to create a certain atmosphere or mood, more than anything that'll have you in stitches, and this is what Miki seems to excel at. It's not his best work I've seen (in fact, it's probably the most disappointing of all three), but certainly serves as good fluff to float off to.


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