Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers

cast: Juri Ueno, Yû Aoi, Ryo Iwamatsu, Eri Fuse, and Jun Kaname
writer and director: Satoshi Miki

90 minutes (15) 2005
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Third Window DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Mark West

Suzume ‘Sparrow’ Katakura (Juri Ueno) is an ordinary young housewife, living in a tiny flat with only a brightly painted turtle, Taro, for company. Her husband is working abroad and rings ‘almost every day’, but he often only asks about Taro’s well-being.

To fill her day – and ease her growing concern that she’s becoming invisible – she looks around for adventure and lives vicariously through the exploits of her confident, free-spirited best friend ‘Peacock’ (Yû Aoi). After challenging herself to run up 100 stairs (“if you do it in 30 seconds, good luck will come your way”), she only gets halfway before an apple-seller loses control of his cart and his entire stock (and then some) cascades down around our heroine. Sheltering, she spots a tiny sticker on a baluster, which states ‘Spies Wanted’ and rings the number on it. The innocuous couple who answer, Shizuo (Ryo Iwamatsu) and Etsuko Kugitani (Eri Fuse), claim to be sleeper agents for a foreign country and, impressed by Sparrow’s ordinariness, recruit her immediately and give her $50,000 (which she keeps in her fridge and looks at occasionally, cackling). As the film progresses, she realises that all of the ordinary people around her are part of the same spy gang and, quite by accident, home country spies and the police are on their trail.

This is not the spy thriller it sounds, but instead is a quirky, charming little character study (in the vein of Amélie) about a bored young woman who comes to realise that her very mundanity, her very ordinariness, is what makes her significant in life and to those around her. As she steeps herself in the spy life, she begins to accept the normality of her existence and how important it is, that the simple of acts of sticking to the speed limit, or buying foods that aren’t boring and aren’t exotic, is thrilling in of itself.

Her fellow spy group members all have their own little quirks. There’s the gentle giant Ramen chef (Yutaka Matsushige), whose noodles Sparrow loves but which all of her friends believe is bland. Once he learns that his cover is blown, he decides to make his Ramen properly and brings customers to tears with its exquisite taste. There’s the tofu shop owner, an ex-mercenary fending off the loving attention of his male neighbour, who can move in ways that would make Neo from The Matrix proud. And then there’s ‘Peacock’, secretly envious of Sparrow’s life and on the run from her own problems.

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The film is full of life, from the little homilies Sparrow uses (talking about the difference between her and Peacock at school, she says “poor taste in stickers means poor taste in life” and the perceptive “ordinary life holds a world of secrets”), to the way characters are used (Sparrow’s husband is never seen, his voice accompanied by static shots of the telephone receiver) to the ways her invisibility presents itself (a bus ignores her and then an older woman barges her away from a sink in the public toilets, farting loudly). Conversation is both mundane and fantastic, often going off on bizarre tangents and some of the shots are beautifully composed, highlighting the striking beauty of both the rural surroundings and the urban centres.

Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (aka: Kame wa igai to hayaku oyogu) won’t be to everyone’s taste, certainly, but this has a lot to offer anyone willing to give it a chance. Deliberately paced, it’s sometimes funny (the power station bits had me laughing out loud), sometimes quite touching (Sparrow tries hard not to judge the squid ‘leather’ jacket her dad has made), occasionally surreal (the dancing hairdresser) but never less than watchable.

I’ve not experienced a lot of Japanese cinema, but I’d willingly sit down and watch more films by the creative team behind this. The DVD extras are limited to a trailer for this (wonderful) and a handful more Japanese films, which seem to run the gamut from sex comedies to thrillers.