Did I like it? Yes and no. The first half left me cold and faintly hostile, but after that it picked up a bit. Eventually I liked some aspects and sort of enjoyed it. Nevertheless so far my experiences with Satoshi Miki's films have been like Stockholm Syndrome.
The story involves a housewife (Juri Ueno) whose husband's away on business. She lives a mundane existence in which her main responsibility is feeding a turtle. Ueno would like a more interesting life and she's mildly jealous of her more exotic best friend (Yu Aoi), so on noticing an improbably small advertisement for spies one day, she applies. Before long, she's a spy too.
Firstly, it's a comedy. Secondly, it's not very funny. Miki has a philosophy of understated comedy that did absolutely nothing for me in the first forty minutes. He doesn't like Hollywood films that "tell you to laugh", so he goes to the opposite extreme and does "was that a gag?" gags that don't even have a reaction shot afterwards. He cuts away. More than once, I found myself getting irritated by a potentially funny joke that the editing had guillotined. Mind you, most of the time you'd be lucky even to hit those heights, since Miki's absurdism often struck me as anti-funny. Unrealistic characters will do unrealistic things. Ueno fills the turtle's tank with food, so much that it buries the creature, then she puts in a hose and leaves it running. Her phone rings! She goes to answer it without turning off the hose!
Why am I supposed to care about this? Of course Miki isn't aiming for realism, but I still felt as if the movie were beating me with a "don't care" stick.
Before long, I was treating it as a challenge. Could I make myself find some entertainment value? Answer: no. The rain of apples? The dancing hairdresser? The five million yen? My reaction was "eh?" Ryo Iwamatsu and Eri Fuse are giving their all as unlikely spymasters, but I detected neither humour nor a story I could invest in.
Then, at the forty-minute mark, the toilet screaming scene made me laugh. Things had been picking up very slightly, with a couple of mildly interesting bits of character work, but this was a scene I actually liked. At last a situation has built up. Ueno has been ordered to behave normally, because she's a spy. The problem is that being told to be normal might become the hardest thing in the world as soon you become aware of it, especially if you've got your bosses spying on you to monitor your progress. Thus Ueno frequently acts like a freak in her quest to be normal, whereas of course being crushingly mundane had previously been the problem with her life.
Another interesting take on this is the Ramen Man (Yutaka Matsushige). He's a spy who's been running a ramen shop for fourteen years, pouring all his experience into making mediocre food with a taste you'd have forgotten by the time you put down your spoon.
I liked ironies like that. Obviously there's a theme of Ueno coming to terms with being normal and finding that Aoi envies her as much as she envies Aoi. This is rather good. The plot is silly, but that means it's going places and exploring angles you wouldn't get in other stories. I particularly liked the question of who Ueno's spying for. It's not Japan. She's spying on Japan. We never learn who this other country or organisation might be, about which Miki surreptitiously teases us by making Iwamatsu wear a "Soviet Union propaganda" T-shirt.
The acting is okay, although once or twice Ueno's performance struck me as shallow. I think most actors would have struggled to find their feet here, though.
Hard work to enjoy. It picks up in the second half, but even there you won't be laughing aloud. It bludgeoned me into being glad I'd suffered through the first half, but "suffered" is the word. However there's stuff I liked here. I liked the finale, where it looks as though people are descending into hell. I liked the themes. I liked where the absurdism ended up, although I didn't like the fact that it had needed such an almighty run-up to get there. Apparently Miki's next project after this was much better, a TV series called Jiko Kiesatsu. I'm mildly curious, but I don't expect to be watching more of his movies. Overall, this is an oddly delicate film with obscure, gradual charm and occasional scenes I'd like more than expected. Ueno and her dad are lovely, for instance.
"What did mum like about you, dad?"