One of my favourite distributors is Third Window Films. I have them to thank for introducing me to Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (2007) and the films of Tetsuya Nakashima (Confessions and Memories of Matsuko, to name a few). I recently picked up their collection of films by Satoshi Miki – a director who seems to generate as much hatred as he does glowing reviews. I dug into the earliest film in the set, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers.

original title: 亀は意外と速く泳ぐ
(Kame wa Igai to Hayaku Oyogu)

aka: Turtles Swim Faster Than Expected
Japan, 2005, Satoshi Miki

I take issue with Japanese films that I feel cater to a Western market by upping the dosage of “Japanese weirdness”. I don’t think it’s too hard to distinguish between a Japanese film that is innocently odd and one that is manipulatively weird. Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers happily falls into the former category, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to love it. I just skimmed a review for a Miki film (not this one) that referred to it as “idiotic unfunny trash”. I can certainly understand that response, and yes, I can imagine some will find the humour of Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers infuriating. An overview of the plot should give you a good idea if this is your sort of film or not. Suzume Katakura (Juri Ueno) is a bored housewife left alone to look after a turtle while her husband works overseas for a seemingly indefinite time. Her best friend Kujaku (Yû Aoi) appears to have a much more exciting life than hers, which she rubs in Suzume’s face constantly. In a search for meaning in her life, Suzume answers an advertisement for a spy agency. At the job interview, she meets husband and wife spy team Shizuo (Ryô Iwamatsu) and Etsuko (Eri Fuse) who introduce her to the bizarre world of “sleeper” spies – spies who must live the most ordinary life possible while they await their call of duty, which may go on for decades.

Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers lays on the humour thick and fast. Not every joke works, but I found myself laughing consistently, even crackling out a few belly laughs. The comedy stretches from toilet humour to gentle character quirks, from slapstick absurdity to darkly funny musings on the banality of daily life. This kitchen sink approach actually does wonders in keeping the film fresh and fast-paced. The comedy works best when pushed to inane extremes, such as the “hag” in the park that feeds ants, the discovery of a dead body in a family-friendly net-fishing event, a clogged toilet that shocks a hardened plumber and a hairdresser’s creepy appreciation of school uniforms. Satoshi Miki’s script is above average, but it’s his direction, Gen Kobayashi’s cinematography and Nobuyuki Takahashi’s editing that get the jokes over the line. Suzume’s failed interaction with her high school crush is a great example of their combined efforts. The scene intercuts between two talking head shots – the shot that frames Suzume moves further and further away each time the camera cuts back while she nervously and monotonously delivers the same line, this is cut with a shot of Kato (Jun Kaname), Suzume’s ex-crush, who stares blankly, not into, but through the camera and tells us of the sad state of his current life. Oh yeah, and there’s also this scene with two men playing with… uh… slime…

Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers has a cast ripe with familiar faces and great performances are plentiful. There are no weak links in the lineup, but I’ll pick out a few standouts. Ryô Iwamatsu and Eri Fuse, the married spy team, are brilliantly goofy and even manage to squeeze a little underlying malice into their roles. It’s impossible to pick a favourite between the two, as they both compliment each other wonderfully. Another pair of actors that work magic together are the legendary Masatô Ibu and the long-faced Kyûsaku Shimada, who play a pair of cops. Ibu lets loose in this role giving an outrageously hyperactive performance. In complete contrast is Shimada whose deadpan delivery is hysterical. Yutaka Matsushige, a spy in hiding as a ramen chef who is forced to cook mediocre ramen to appear normal, is another standout. With his permanently dour expression painted with glum acceptance, he is both very funny and terribly depressing. And it must be said that Juri Ueno does a fantastic job in the lead role. She is surrounded by far more bizarre characters, yet manages to successfully remain the centre of attention.

Read a few reviews for Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers and you’ll find some very different opinions. While I had a great time with Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers, I can’t blindly recommend it to everyone. If the plot outline, video and stills found in this article make you a little nervous, I’d have to tell you to trust you instincts and steer clear of Satoshi Miki. If, however, this all sounds appealing, then rush to your nearest DVD shop or online vender, and fork out a few measly coins for Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers!