Fumiya Takemura (Jo Odagiri) is not in a good place. With ¥800,000 plus debt hanging over the student’s head he spends his time hiding from loan sharks at home, but the sanctuary of his cramped apartment can’t keep away debt collector Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura) who isn’t beyond paying Fumiya house calls, shoving dirty socks in his mouth and threatening his life. Three days to pull the money together or else is the ultimatum the gangster gives him. Being an orphan Fumiya doesn’t have family to turn to for any kind of support, financial or otherwise, and he doesn’t appear to have any friends. Things look bleak, as in Fumiya finding himself landing in a block of concrete at the bottom of Tokyo Bay bleak, but sometimes life has a way of twisting and turning in your favour. A much less murderous Fukuhara returns a few days later and gives Fumiya a way out: take a walk with him from the suburbs of Tokyo downtown to the Kasumigaseki police station where he’ll turn himself in for the accidental murder of wife. That’s it, and if Fumiya agrees Fukuhara will pay him enough to cover his debt plus some extra fun money for his time and trouble. The proposition is just too easy, and strange, to believe, but it’s not like Fumiya has a choice. Thus begins the simple storyline of Satoshi Miki’s 2007 comedy “Adrift in Tokyo (Tenten),” a film that shares some of the best hallmarks of previous Japanese crossover hits like “Tampopo” or “Shall We Dance?” but that may not get the recognition it deserves due to its meandering plot.
I remember once reading an interview with “Tampopo” director Juzo Itami in which he distinguished his own films from other Japanese filmmakers by saying that he tried to adhere to the Western three-act structure of storytelling while many of his predecessors and contemporaries were satisfied to let their plotlines wander along without any predetermined plan. I’d have to argue that I find that the plots of many Japanese films evolve as opposed to wander, but I couldn’t help think of Itami’s statement as I watched “Adrift in Tokyo ”. It literally wanders down side streets and blind alleys and we are taken along with Fumiya and Fukuhara to discover a city that even some Tokyoites find hard to navigate. And it’s down these seldom visited streets of the Japanese capital that the unlikely duo encounters such eccentric characters as the owner of an antique clock shop who’s also a martial arts expert, a guitar playing rock star, a gloomy artist who paints nautical battle scenes and even actor Ittoku Kishibe in a dialogue free role playing himself. Apparently it’s good luck to catch a glimpse of him. All of these are funny, but it’s the way that director Miki uses the downbeat and unsmiling pairing of Odagiri and Miura as a counterpoint to all the eccentricity that takes many of the scenes from being just funny to hilarious. It also doesn’t hurt that both actors sport haircuts the likes of which haven’t been seen in film since Aki Kaurismäki’s 1989 comedy “Leningrad Cowboys Go America”.
It’s unfortunate, but many viewers will agree with Itami and just feel lost in Fumiya’s and Fukuhara’s long trip through Tokyo . It’s a real shame because under the zany laughs “Adrift in Tokyo ” is a film with great heart, a melancholic example of the importance of love and human connection in a faceless metropolis. Fukuhara’s knows that these things were, prior to his horrendous crime, what made his life bearable and he’s continually surprised at how young Fumiya’s life seems to have been devoid of these essentials. It’s once the pair’s journey leads them to Fukuhara’s “pretend” wife Makiko (Kyôko Koizumi) and her niece Fufumi (Yuriko Yoshitaka) though that Fumiya starts missing for the first time in his life the family that he never had. It’s this strong emotional through line that I at least I feel “Adrift in Tokyo ” has in common with the aforementioned “Tampopo” and “Shall We Dance?” Some might think that a pretty bold comparison, as both those films were hugely popular and played key roles in raising the profile of Japanese cinema overseas, but doubter’s should seek out “Adrift in Tokyo” and decide whether for themselves if it has the same potential as these other films.