While there’s no doubt that its willfully unassuming title will throw off at least a few high-minded film-goers, ‘Turtles Swim Faster Than Expected’ is an accessible and undemanding comedy that showcases director Satoshi Miki’s inimitable brand of unconventional humour. Juri Ueno, already in her second cinematic lead role at the tender age of 19, plays a bored, neglected housewife who chances upon a rather small (to put it mildly) recruiting poster for spies. Her decision to join a furtive band of gloriously inactive secret agents allows her to gradually regain the sense of initiative and self-worth she once possessed in her student days but had lost along the way.
Of course, it’s not nearly as formulaic or wooden as all that, and the movie above all is a vehicle for Miki to flex his comic muscles. There are some lovely moments, mostly involving the delightful pairing of Ryo Iwamatsu and Eri Fuse as the husband-and-wife team of spies who become Ueno’s mentors (the restaurant scene is particularly enjoyable); and Ueno plays the painfully normal Suzume with a consummate and quiet ease which has informed all her other characters to date. She is clearly a natural actress, and coming off the heels of ‘Swing Girls’, here is another main part that Ueno breathes life into with such understated confidence.
Everything, however, is run through with Miki’s discerning eye for the quirky which is more amusing than funny, and the movie doesn’t quite reach the level of inventive tomfoolery that it clearly aspires to. ‘Turtles’ is determinedly low-key, lo-fi and low-maintenance, meaning that for every joke the price is exacted in meandering narrative and lack of focus. Miki also criminally wastes the charming Yu Aoi as Ueno’s uninhibited friend, a character who drifts in and out of the story and fails to provide the comic momentum that is hinted at.
‘Turtles’ is a fairly enjoyable film in its own right, but the main interest for it lies in the fact that much of the cast and indeed style would go on to help create Miki’s next project, the brilliant TV series ‘Jiko Keisatsu (Limitation Police)’. For those who enjoyed ‘Turtles’, this comic drama is essential viewing; and if the movie left you underwhelmed, know that ‘Jiko Keisatsu’ is a thrilling realization of the potential Miki showed here and you could do a lot worse than checking it out.