Review: Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (Satoshi Miki, 2005)

by Jason Suzuki

To me, Satoshi Miki has made two films that strike the perfect balance between his penchants for odd characters doing quirky things and making mundane life fun through the use of observations or imbuing his characters with tiny superstitions. These two films are 2005’s Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers and 2007’s Adrift in Tokyo. They are not trying extremely hard to be bizarre and quirky like his The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia (great title though) and they form a cohesive body of work which something like his latest It’s Me, It’s Me for all its welcome experimentation does not fit in so easily.

Early in Turtles, Suzume, played by Swing Girls’ Juri Ueno, comes across a flight of 100 steps. She gives herself a challenge with cosmic stakes: run up them in less than a minute and something good will happen. It’s not specified what will happen if she succeeds, and she doesn’t raise the stakes by wishing for something if she fails, which she does due to a comically out-of-nowhere avalanche of apples from a broken cart at the top of the steps. She wisely lays down on the steps and lets the apples roll over her, which is how she comes across a microscopic sign enlisting those who may see it to contact and become a spy.

When she answers the mini-ad, she meets a couple played by Miki regulars Eri Fuse and Ryo Iwamatsu. They are sleeper spies waiting to hear from their superiors about further plans. Their mission until then: to lead ordinary lives as not to attract unwanted attention. They recruit Suzume into their spy group, which she later finds out other folk are apart of like the man who operates a ramen shop specializing in mediocre ramen, neither good or bad enough to warrant any extra attention to him. Suzume’s mission is the same as everyone else’s: just continue on with life. Once she becomes a spy she finds a renewed enjoyment in life as now every activity she used to find inane and never ending, are now filled with excitement. Everything she does may be the exact same since before she became a spy but now it’s for a special purpose.

In these films there is nothing wrong with leading a quiet life. It’s not entirely misguided to expect the world to make living more interesting for you because it’s all there but only if you take it upon yourself to find these little quirks of the universe. Miki’s films ask us to observe what’s around us not to wish for something better but to find those funny little things hidden around us which we can later show to a friend and be one of those oddballs not being bogged down by our seemingly repetitive existences. Next time you hear a pop while you’re driving, stop and see if it was a bag of chips. And be considerate of others when you play with a spring in the woods in the middle of the night. 

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.