Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers Review
Miki Satoshi’s debut outing In the Pool was a delightful little excursion into the lives of several individuals, who were each suffering from a psychological illness. While it didn’t greatly explore the feelings of inadequacy that it occasionally touched upon, nor provide the deepest of insight toward its chosen themes, it was an immensely quirky and inoffensive offering that dealt its characters enough compassion to come away as a charmingly humanistic experience. Following on in the same year, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers sees Satoshi loosely turn his sights toward the spy genre in a premise far removed from that of his first feature, but one which retains the kind of skewed psychological underpinnings and energism that made the former so enjoyable.
A wonderfully animated Ueno Juri plays 23 year-old Suzume [Sparrow] Katakura, left to her own devices while her husband works abroad. Everyday he calls home, but rather than ask how his wife is doing he only ever wishes to know how his pet turtle Taro is faring. The monotony of his phone calls and the general tedium of her life brings Suzume to question if she’s living as an invisible entity. Even her mentally unstable childhood friend Kujiyaku [Peacock] (Yu Aoi), whose shadow she seems to have lived under all her life, appears a little distant lately.
One day, during yet another endless battle with the hundred-step staircase, Suzume falls at the might of hundreds of apples tumbling her way. Looking up from her daze she spots a thumbnail-sized advertisement at the bottom of a post; the message “Spies Wanted”, which prompts her to call the number. A few days later she’s told to go to a small apartment, where she meets mall-announcer Etsuko (Eri Fuse) and unemployed Shizuo (Ryo Iwamatsu) Kugitani. The couple claim to be spies, and after a brief introduction and inauguration they hand Suzume 500,000 in yen and tell her to await further instructions. Sure enough word comes and Suzume soon discovers that half her neighbourhood is made up of fellow collaborators, whose mission it is is to remain as “normal” as possible.
Satoshi clearly has an interest in taking things of an ordinary nature and making them into something not only relatable, but also special; he sets his films up in a manner that allows us to empathise with his central characters while they lead their somewhat mundane existence and ponder as to whether or not there’s any more to it than simply going to the shops, feeding the pet and going to sleep. His answer to such questions, however, are the kind we expect to find only in our dreams. In Turtles the director whisks us on an absurdist journey of self discovery, embracing the episodic structure of his debut feature as the narrative takes on an increasingly surreal form in what ends up resembling an anime brought to life. In many respects, then, the director is reminiscent of contemporary film maker Katsuhito Ishii, whose own work explores connectable themes via a series of screwball events that usually culminates with an ambiguous finale. That is to say, if you dig sketch comedy over deep, thought-provoking storytelling you’ll no doubt get a kick out of Miki Satoshi’s escapist style.
And really there’s little to say about said plot. For a film about spying it contains next to none in the traditional sense, with any intrigue remaining just that. Which is part of the point really; it’s nothing more than a device which enables Suzume to grow as a person. But of all things, Turtles is wildly funny. The director takes an already common social theme in Japanese cinema and just has fun with it. It’s mad-cap all the way, filled with ludicrous exchanges of dialogue and fast-paced sight gags as each new ‘mission’ that befalls our heroine - which only ever amounts to mimicking normal everyday activities - becomes zanier by the minute. And it’s all largely thanks to a sprightly and diverse cast playing a bunch of locals with unlikely talents that we can come away with a huge smile on our face.
Presented anamorphically at approximately 1.85:1 Turtles is one of Third Window’s better looking films of recent, despite its NTSC-PAL conversion. Colours appear vibrant and natural and detail is very pleasing; some may notice on occasion a slight, curved softness/blur to the edge of the image on certain wide shots (such as the interior of the apartment Suzume first visits), and I can only put this down to what I presume is Satoshi’s seemingly strange choice to film a select few scenes through a fisheye lens.
We get Japanese DD2.0 for our one and only track, and like the image it’s rather pleasant throughout. No trouble with dialogue or music, both being very well balanced for what is pretty much a low-key presentation.
Optional English subtitles are included this time, and although a few liberties have been taken with portions of dialogue, such as a spot of over-translating, they’re decently timed and read well.
Very limited, with just a trailer for the feature and other Third Window acquisitions.
In the comedic vein of Katsuhito Ishii, Shinobu Yaguchi and Masayuki Suo, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers is a charming and spirited little flick which shows us that life is simply what we make of it.