Adrift in Tokyo (2007) by Satoshi Miki

Two men embark on a stroll around the capital in this easy-going comedy drama. Fumiya (Joe Odagiri) is deep in debt, having spent 8 years as a student. The man sent to collect on these debts, Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura), comes to him with a bizarre proposition: if Fumiya will accompany him on a walk around the city he will hand him enough money to clear his debts. Fumiya later discovers that Fukuhara has killed his wife and intends to hand himself in at a particular police station; but wishes to spend his final days taking in sights that he used to enjoy with his wife. The two of them set out, meeting quirky characters and philosophizing about their lives, before Fumiya is recruited into a fake family consisting of Fukuhara, his fake-wife Makiko (Kyoko Koizumi) and her neice Fufumi (Yuriko Yoshitaka).

“Adrift in Tokyo”, based on the novel by Yoshinaga Fujita and directed by Satoshi Miki, takes you along on a meandering journey, its languid pace sustained by the odd-couple dynamic of Fumiya and Fukuhara, both men searching for something intangible on their perambulations. The comedy is similarly understated with the occasional flash of surrealism, such as the 66-year old cosplayer, or the psychedelic rocker Fumiya ends up tailing through the streets. In its loosely strung-together series of quirky moments and ideas the film captures the sense of tramping through a city as diverse as Tokyo. “Adrift in Tokyo” very much adheres to the mantra that it is the journey rather than the destination that is important, never fully reconciling certain ideas and offering little in the way of closure.

Fumiya repeatedly refers to the fact that he was abandoned by his parents and seems to find a surrogate father in Fukuhara. Fukuhara also seems to lack a sense of identity, instead hiring himself out to play a character in a fake family. As the two wander around they come across different aspects of the city, questing for a sense of self amongst the overwhelming variety of Tokyo. The bizarre characters they meet, glimpsed only briefly, offer a window into the myriad lives that are carrying on around each individual. It is perhaps hard for people to discover who they are while feeling part of such a vast whole.

Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (2005) by Satoshi Miki

A bored housewife discovers a second life as a spy in this quirky comedy. Suzume Katakura (Juri Ueno) lives a mundane and monotonous life, consisting mainly of chores and looking after a pet turtle Taro. Her husband, working abroad, calls her only to check how the turtle is doing. Her friend “Peacock” (Yu Aoi) is everything Suzume is not, outgoing and energetic, with dreams of moving to France. One day, by chance, Suzume spots a thumbnail size sticker notice with a contact number for somebody looking to recruit a spy. She soon meets with Shizuo (Ryo Iwamatsu) and Etsuko (Eri Fuse), an unusual couple who, without question, give her 50,000 yen ‘living expenses’ and invite her to join their group of undercover agents working for a foreign government. They tell her that she is to be a ‘sleeper’ agent, and must remain inconspicuous, tasking her with various odd missions and giving her questionable advice and tips on spying. Suzume continues her life with newfound purpose, while the other residents in the town seem to be doing the same, waiting for the day that they will be called to action.

Satoshi Miki’s film find comedy in the juxtaposition of the humdrum life of its protagonist suddenly plunged into the thrilling world of espionage. The story unfolds as a series of comic scenes, often intercut with flights of fancy or flashbacks, and it is hard to discern much of a plot until the film is almost over. The humour is broad with surrealist non-sequiturs, sight gags and cringeworthy wordplay jokes. Juri Ueno gives a great central performance, expressive and relatable in her confusion about what is happening around her. Eri Fuse and Ryo Iwamatsu are perfect in their roles as unlikely spies, with their bizarre conversations and behaviours making for some of the funniest scenes. The rest of the cast, some with only a little to do, play their parts well, delivering deadpan absurdism.

“Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers” is a film about seeing the world from a different perspective. Suzume’s life is unbearably drab until she is essentially given a licence to reassess her surroundings and the other inhabitants of this small town. In another sense it is a story of self-discovery, with a message that the world is what you make of it. The social norms that can inhibit self-expression and stifle creativity and enjoyment are carefully ridiculed here, as we see Suzume carrying out tasks such as cleaning and shopping under the guise of being a sleeper agent, enlivening an otherwise dull existence. The idea being that you cannot change your duties, but you can change how you approach them. The one thing you have control over is how you interact with the world and how you choose to see things. The film also satirises the conformism of society summed up in the expression “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, with various secret agents striving to be absolutely average and unremarkable in every regard to maintain their cover. A whimsical farce with a great cast of comic actors, the film’s inoffensive humour and relaxed tone make it an enjoyable watch.

Instant Swamp (2009)

In a frenetic opening monologue, Haname Jinchoge (Kumiko Aso) introduces us to her life and philosophies. She goes through her daily routine as a chore, enjoys a sludge of ten spoons of coffee in milk each morning, and lives with her mother (Keiko Matsuzaka), her father has left for a more wealthy woman. Haname loses her job at failing women’s magazine publication and her mother takes ill resulting in a coma. They manage to fish a letter out of a sunken post-box that tells Haname that her real father is not who she thought, but is instead a bohemian figure called Light Bulb (Morio Kazama), who is now running a bric-a-brac store. The eternally upbeat Haname sets out to meet him, hoping that her discovery of her mother’s former partner might return her to consciousness.

“Instant Swamp” has a bizarre and convoluted plot that is perfectly in keeping with its protagonist and her eccentric behaviour. The film is an off-beat comedy that relies heavily on slapstick humour and unusual scenarios. It often delights in subverting expectations with ridiculous reveals. Much of the dialogue is clearly designed more for laughs than realism and it plays like a series of sketches that happen to involve the same characters. Not all of the jokes work, but there are enough of them that this does not matter. In the same way, the plot moves along at such a pace that there is always something else to be invested in, albeit temporarily, like a wild treasure hunt that is constantly throwing up more hints to follow. The jokes are helped, even when the material is weak, by some great comedic performances. Kumiko Aso is very charismatic in the lead role and really sells every gag. Morio Kazama as Light Bulb gives a good performance as the humorous yet untrustworthy shop owner. The supporting actors, Eri Fuse as Haname’s co-worker Ichinose, and Ryo Kase as a punk electrician named Gas, are also excellent in their roles. The film is written and directed by Satoshi Miki, whose fertile imagination shows in every scene.

“Instant Swamp” is a peculiar film about the magic of everyday life. In an early scene, Haname’s mother tells her there is a kappa in the garden. Haname refuses to be drawn in, believing this to be a silly delusion. Similarly, when she is tasked with writing an article on ghosts for her magazine she is highly sceptical, despite her co-workers’ belief in the supernatural. However, by the end of the scene Haname has experienced her own transcendental moment of magic, finally converted to the idea that the world is a wide and wonderful place where anything can happen. The film is not attempting to suggest scepticism is wrong, but that most people spend their lives in narrow channels and often miss out on the opportunities that may be surrounding them for experiencing “magic”. This idea is also emphasised in the use of antiques dealing as a central plot point. Haname’s meeting with Light Bulb proves to be important as she learns that the value of an object is not necessarily in its price, but in its emotional weight. She learns to value things based not solely on their use. Again, this is shown in her own attachment to a bent nail, the importance of which is lost on almost everyone she shows it to. The theme of luck plays throughout the film in parallel with this idea. Haname believes that throwing away a lucky black cat statue in her youth has led to her streak of misfortune. However, when she is tricked into buying something that is seemingly useless at the end of the film, she has grown enough to appreciate the potential in even the lowliest of things. Life, she realises, is not based on luck, but instead on making the most of what you have and in seeing opportunity in every new day.