Like any really good comedic filmmaker, Satoshi Miki is deadly serious at least part of the time – and like any great comedic filmmaker, he takes considerable pains to make sure you don’t notice it. This week sees what is generally considered Miki’s most accomplished film, Adrift in Tokyo (2007), making its belated UK DVD debut both on its own and as part of the Miki Satoshi Collection, courtesy of Third Window Films.
Already clearly drifting through life before the story proper begins, young Fumiya (Jô Odagiri) is self-described as being in his eighth year of college. Soon, in order to work off a sizable debt, he finds himself accompanying the older Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura) on a series of long ambles about the capital city. As Fukuhara himself puts it at one point, “It wouldn’t be called a ‘walk’ if the destination was set.”
The result is a pedestrian version of a road movie, as one episode yields to another, colourful characters float in and out of the narrative, and you gradually come to realise that you very much don’t want the journey to end. Since Fumiya is parentless and Fukuhara is childless, a father-son dynamic is soon established that is too overt to be characterised as subtext.
As with the other themes on hand – loneliness, regret, the importance of finding a kind of wholeness – Miki does not lean too hard on any of the heavier material. Perhaps that’s why by the time the film is over, it has snuck up on you how moving it actually is. You laugh and laugh at all the silliness and all the disarming moments, and then it hits you that you’re laughing at life itself.
That’s not to imply, though, that Adrift in Tokyo is a pleasantly bland, neither-fish-nor-fowl ‘dramedy’. It’s both far too contemplative and full of far too many surprises to deserve that label. The wonderful cinematography by Sôhei Tanikawa, who went on to shoot Love Exposure (2008), presents us with a Tokyo that’s neither glossy and glamorous nor gritty and grimy. Instead, with its mostly empty parks, riverwalks, and tree-lined streets, it’s a city that’s noticeably quiet, both visually and aurally. And it’s this strategy that gives Miura and Odagiri (who has never been more appealing) the space to work wonders with the smallest of gestures and half-glances.
That’s not too say that there aren’t plenty of laugh-out-loud moments (Yuriko Yoshitaka will have you chuckling pretty much any time she says anything) but rather that with Adrift in Tokyo Miki proves himself to be a master of modulation above all else. There’s ample quirk, but the script always pulls back before things get too random or self-indulgent. There are also times when the tone veers abruptly toward black comedy, but again we really reach it. The overall sensation, then, is one of possibility, and the end result is a picture that feels unmoored but never directionless… in sum, an unforgettable experience.
In addition to being released on its own, Adrift in Tokyo is part of the newly-available three-film Miki Satoshi Collection. As it turns out, the inclusion of the other two titles serves to show how nicely the source material for Adrift in Tokyo, a novel by Yoshinaga Fujita, complements Miki’s own sensibility. That’s because when writing original scripts, Miki can be something of a goofball – in the best possible way.
Not as soulful as Adrift in Tokyo or as breathlessly madcap as Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (2005), Instant Swamp (2009) could be said to split the difference. Relentlessly inventive, Instant Swamp showcases the comedic talents of Kumiko Asô, who rises to the occasion and almost single-handedly ensures that you’ll have a smile on your face for most of its runtime. The first few minutes alone are smarter and more exhilarating than most indie comedies in their entirety.
The humour in Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers, by contrast, is of a much broader variety, and in fact can get a bit exhausting. At its heart it’s got a compelling premise – what if one’s very ordinariness became an asset in a career as a spy? – but before this idea can be fully developed you sense that Miki is getting distracted by his own incessant creativity. Sight gags and jokes about hairstyles abound.
All in all, the Miki Satoshi Collection would make a great gift to someone who loves upbeat, often zany comedies that flirt with the anarchic but never quite get all the way there. Both Instant Swamp and Turtles do not come with any extras save trailers, while Adrift in Tokyo includes an hour-plus making-of featurette. Extremely straightforward, it simply depicts the camera set-ups and prep work (both acting and effects) on a scene-by-scene basis. So if you’re looking for deeper insights into the film, you’d be out of luck. Instead, it demonstrates how Miki achieves his glorious mise-en-scene. Although the collection doesn’t exactly represent the most generous of packages for a filmmaker who’s this accomplished, you’re unlikely to feel let down – the films themselves are more than sufficiently generous.
Want to catch a Miki retrospective on the big screen? Then check out the 2nd annual East Winds Film Festival at Coventry University, 2-4 March 2-4. For more information and to buy tickets, visit eastwindsfilm.com.