Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (2005): Japan – directed by Satoshi Miki
Not rated by the MPAA – doesn’t really have much bad stuff in it at all
Judging by the title and the country of origin (Japan) one might expect that this film is in the mode of Executive Koala (reviewed here), but with people dressed up like turtles. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite accurate. Fortunately, the movie is still good fun in its own right. It’s the kind of small, independent, quirky film that gives you cheer and makes you smile. It’s sort of like a scaled-down and Japanese version of Amélie (reviewed here). It’s also different enough to separate itself from the quirky independent American films of the past few years.
Turtles is about a young Japanese housewife who lives in an idyllic coastal town. Well, idyllic may not be the best word, as there are plenty of odd and surreal characters, but there is a certain charm to the place. She is bored, and, more importantly, ordinary. Her husband works overseas and the only conversations she has with him consist of being asked if she’s fed the turtle. They have a rare pet turtle, and as she notes at the beginning, it’s the only thing that depends on her. We, in fact, never see the husband’s face the entire movie.
Her best friend is the crazy type of person who runs off to be a photographer in Cambodia and wishes to live in France with a Frenchman and a view of the Eiffel Tower (this wish gets fulfilled in a very peculiar and funny way). But the housewife (whose name is Sparrow, while her friend’s name is Peacock) is ignored by everyone, until one day when she sees a small sticker reading “Spies Wanted.” After suffering her ordinarity by herself for a while she responds to the ad and calls the number. Upon reporting to the destination she discovers an odd couple who want to make her a sleeper agent. She’s perfect, you see, because she’s ordinary and no one notices her. The rest of the film gently unfolds as she gets pulled slightly deeper into the conspiracy.
But this is the type of film where nothing really happens. This isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, as there are plenty of odd characters and situations that are interesting and funny. There’s the ramen shop owner who has made “so-so” ramen for fourteen years in order to avoid drawing any attention to himself. There’s the tofu shop owner and the candy store owner whose stores abut, and they each have their own important secret. There’s an old lady who sits on a bench and feeds the ants. There’s the high-school crush that Sparrow runs into again, only to discover his hairline might not quite be what it once was. There’s plenty more, too, that I don’t have the space or time to mention and certainly wouldn’t want to spoil.
It’s all done with a certain charm, but not necessarily with much style. It’s the kind of movie that will make you smile but not necessarily grin like a fool. There’s a level of style and directing, perhaps, that keeps it a step below the likes of Amélie. There are tons of pretty colors, solid greens and reds and yellows and blues, and those are always fun to look at. The acting is perfectly fine. Sparrow is ordinary and is played in a very ordinary way by Juri Ueno (who is also in Josee, the Tiger and the Fish). The surrounding characters are allowed to let loose a little and they are all fun to watch. The film borrows a little from other genres as well, as I noticed some musical scores and highway shots paying homage to David Lynch’s projects like Mulholland Dr. and “Twin Peaks.” All of this, the directing, acting, music, and surreal sequences, serve to give the film its charm.
I don’t think it’s been seen too widely yet, and that’s a shame. It doesn’t have any controversial or offensive subject matter or content, just a certain sweetness and charm that, unless you’re a hardened cynic, will bring a smile to your face. For that reason alone it is worth tracking down a copy and being happy for 90 minutes.