Starring: Juri Ueno Yû Aoi Jun Kaname Masatô Ibu Yutaka Matsushige
Running time: 90 min.
Reviewed by Bob Turnbull
"Ordinary life holds a world of secrets".
By the time one of the characters states the above about halfway through this 2005 film, it's become fairly obvious. Sleeper cells of spies hide in local food shops, old flames may not be quite what you thought they were and some very odd things block people's plumbing. Suzume still hasn't picked up on the little things that life has to offer, though, as she still considers herself plain, ordinary and even wonders if she may be invisible. She feels these attributes might actually come in handy when she comes across the world's smallest spy recruitment ad and since she's not doing much anyway (all she really does is feed her perpetually-away-on-business husband's turtle), she signs up. After passing some initial tests (like buying the most unremarkable grocery order possible), she becomes a full-fledged member of the team and sees a boost in her day-to-day happiness. Nothing's changed really - the cell of spies are still in sleep mode after all - but things are slowly starting to feel different.
Satoshi Miki's "Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers" could easily be described as a slight film. It shuffles along with nary a real plot in sight. The sleeper cell of spies Suzume has joined has made themselves so inconspicuous over the last 15 years that they are pretty inconsequential to the daily lives of most people and essentially do nothing more than wait. You might say that the audience is in a similar position, but then you'd be missing the little sideroads and details that the film finds along the way. It's filled with odd characters who have quirks that will out-quirk any Sundance Indie film you care to mention, but these characteristics feel more natural in relation to what's going on - they surface the many joys and interesting facets of life as well as the different approaches to finding your own way. If you don't laugh out loud much during the course of the movie, you're likely to at least have had a smile on your face for most of its running time.
It's not a perfect film by any stretch though. There are some awkward moments of a broader style of comedy that jars one from the more gentle humour of most of the rest of the story. Some of the more slapstick moments, "funny" sound effects and quick zooms work against the tone of the rest of the events - perhaps that's why they also felt poorly executed. It's when the performances stay subtle and remain dialed down that the film works best. Juri Ueno plays Suzume in quite wonderful fashion - so much so that you occasionally ponder how anyone could find her "invisible". Throughout the film her small reactions to events or statements are perfectly timed and expressed and you can't help but root for her. She also creates one of my favourite recurring moments of the movie: a self-satisfied and even somewhat evil little laugh whenever she opens her fridge to look at a stack of money. Ryo Iwamatsu and Eri Fuse are also fun as Suzume's husband and wife mentors Shizuo and Etsuko who have been long-time members of the cell. They may be non-entities as far as the rest of the population go, but they are jewels in the eyes of each other.
The rest of the cast do solid jobs as well, but there isn't much room for them to create fully realized characters. This is where the film differs from something like the great "The Taste Of Tea" which operates on a similar thematic plane, but performs at a much higher level. Katsuhito Ishii's marvelous work from 2004 has denizens who feel so complete and real and have full arcs. If "Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers" doesn't quite achieve that, it's OK. It still has a great deal of charm and fun at its core and emphasizes letting yourself be amazed and delighted by everyday things. The moments that make the film are ones like Shizuo losing himself in his wife's voice over a loudspeaker, Suzume finding herself almost giddy as she participates in a collaborative net fishing event, someone enjoying a really good bowl of ramen noodles and just being able to find out some interesting tidbits about turtles. Because even the ordinary can sometimes be quite extraordinary.