Anyone familiar with Satoshi Miki’s previous films will have a fair idea what they should expect from Instant Swamp, and that it would be foolish to have any preconceived expectations about the story he’ll unfold for them. Once again, the writer-director brings us a tale of the weird and wonderful taking place in the usual and mundane, imbued with a growing warmth and heartening sense of spirit.

As with his Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers, Miki’s main protagonist is a woman struggling to maintain buoyancy in her ordinary, workaholic modern Japanese lifestyle.

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Haname (Kumiko Aso) is editor of a failing magazine, who is periodically nagged by her far more airy mother about still being single, while she dreams of an ex-boyfriend now living in Milan. Soon her ordered, stressful world is rocked by the magazine closing down and her mother falling into a coma, having been dragged from a lake where she was trying to catch some kappa - water sprites - for her unbelieving daughter.

As well as finding her mother, the police also recover a stolen post box from the depths. Among the letters inside is one apparently from Haname’s mother to her real father, leading Haname to realise that the man who left when she was eight and so traumatised her was not who she thought. With her mother in hospital she sets out to find her real father might be.

Such a summation sounds far more linear and prosaic than Instant Swamp actually is. It’s made up of disparate episodes that Miki only starts binding together in the last 15 minutes. Beforehand, Haname meets all manner of oddball characters and has apparently unconnected mini-adventures while she moves sideways, backwards and headlong, towards her life-affirming denouement. It’s a testament to Miki’s writing that he maintains a warm, winning appeal throughout, despite holding the kook button down most of the time, which keeps you amused and intrigued by Haname’s journey.

Onscreen for almost the entire film, Aso delivers a spirited central performance. Haname is not just a two-toned quirky Amelie character, but rather a vibrant clash of passions, mixed eccentricities and foibles. Rude and abrupt at times, with a penchant for a certain amount of high-pitched screaming, she’s a strong enough personality to keep following through the unexpected turns Miki sends her around. She’s helped by equally strong playing by the rest of the cast, even though their characters are slightly less well proportioned. That said, Miki does show great skill in ensuring that even the minor characters are colourful brushstrokes.

He handles them and the story with a deceptively simple assuredness, showing some great technical skill in varying shots, pace and camera movement as the film progresses, while not overpowering with too many stylistic flourishes. From the almost physically overwhelming whirligig start that pitches us feet first into Haname’s lifestyle, to her altogether calmer, left-field, uplifting final crane shots Miki contrives to make you feel you may have been on a bit of a journey, too.

Along the way some of his whimsical imagery can be a bit heavy-handed, such as Haname literally being bowled over by unsold magazines, or seeing Picasso’s Guernica amongst the assembled waterlogged mail, but it’s certainly in keeping with some later scenes. There are one or two laugh out loud moments but the rest of the forced comedy is direct and mostly superficial, not really coming across as anything more than that. The real charm and humour comes from the characters’ feisty interplay.

So while it’s not perhaps as satisfying overall as Adrift in Tokyo, Miki still delivers a cordial consideration of contemporary living. And he stirs fate, choice, heritage, discovery and inner emancipation into the mix, all before he’s prepared to really make clear what each of our instant swamps might be.

Reviewed on: 26 May 2010
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When a woman has a run of bad luck and her mother falls ill, she finds out that her family might not be everything she assumed it was.
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Director: Satoshi Miki

Writer: Satoshi Miki

Starring: Kumiko Aso, Ryo Kase, Morio Kazame, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shoko Aida

Year: 2009

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan


Raindance 2009

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