Life takes some unexpected turns in Satoshi Miki’s comedy-drama.
“I feel my life slowly but surely eroding away.”
Haname – the lead role played by Kumiko Aso – says the above, and just about everyone in the audience will be able to relate – as is common to find in the surreal yet strangely grounded works of wirter-director Satoshi Miki. Haname is a straight-laced, sensible magazine editor whose life turns upside down after the magazine goes under and the photographer she likes moves to Milan, and she loses her pet rabbit. After her mother (Keiko Matsuzaka) falls into a coma after nearly drowning looking for a kappa, she finds a letter supposedly addressed to her real father, Noburo (Morio Kazama). He owns a junk store and works alongside punk rocker Gas (or Gus, depending on which release you get, played by Ryo Kase).
Japan has something of a reputation for good natured, if unusual and eccentric comedy films, from the completely madcap (such as the work of Hitoshi Matsumoto) to the quieter (like Fine, Totally Fine and the aptly titled Quirkly Guys and Girls) but whereas Miki’s previous film Adrift in Tokyo was a more sombre, reflective film with moments of goofiness to keep things light, Instant Swamp is upbeat and silly from the get-go. It’s loaded with out-of-nowhere non-sequiturs and seemingly unrelated plot points – but they do serve a purpose. Haname’s mother, who looks for kappa at the start of the movie, sets the scene for the magical realism the movie then explores. Haname herself learns to see past her initial cynicism about ghosts and magic to understand what really matters. The film’s cartoonish logic helps sell this change.
As you might come to expect, the characters are all written very sympathetically, which is a huge help in selling the story. Because what might have come out as an overly daft story about quirky mishaps is given a lot of heart and depth. It’s thanks to the realistic portrayals of amicable characters, done by a very talented cast and a director who knows what to ask. Sure, thanks to the world they live in, they kind of have to act in a certain way but the performances never come across as caricatures. It’s a balancing act that’s tough to pull off in this genre, but Aso and Kazama especially manage to build a strong connection and a believable bond that surpasses all of the weird, wackadoo shit that’s happening everywhere else.
The story sort-of goes into the direction you might think, around the point where Haname finds the letter. She begins to work in the store, and she her father start to get along quite well. They get into all sorts of shenanigans, such as running the faucets and getting tasks done before the place floods, and then just as things are going great, something goes wrong and somebody is left with a shed full of dirt. But where Miki plays with our expectations is in the way this typical third-act business is revealed and resolved. He doesn’t bore us with the usual final-moment tearful apology, or a chase through the airport or whatever. Instead, he lets Haname make her own happiness by allowing her to grow.
This works because, ultimately, Instant Swamp is about finding things: it’s about finding family, and yourself and of making peace with the past … sort of. It never digs very deep into this thesis – although it is present throughout as Haname starts to figure her lot out in life – and it’s difficult to tell if that’s because the movie was too bogged down (no pun intended) by its reliance on goofy antics, or if it was a purposeful decision. As seen in Adrift in Tokyo, Miki is very capable of making this sort of story work, so it’s possible to give him the benefit of the doubt. Instant Swamp doesn’t exactly juggle its two separate elements too well, but at least it very much has its own tone of voice, which allows it to stand out as its own thing.
However, the fact that it can never truly escape its sense of silliness means that some of the heavier scenes fall flat. The resolution is nice, sure, but it’s also completely out of nowhere. There’s no Chekov’s gun to hint at it at the beginning, only Haname’s cynicism and adamant disbelief in water sprites and ghosts. Films like the aforementioned Fine, Totally Fine and Adrift in Tokyo (a personal favourite of mine) are definitely better, but if you’re looking for more of that weird Japanese humour, this movie could very well be your cup of Milo sludge.
Verdict: Offbeat, funny and charming Instant Swamp isn’t an instant classic, but it’s still worth a watch.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Monks: Too much time on their hands
Rabbit names: Gonzaburo is a pretty good one
Punk rockers: Eat omurice, of course `
Out of the swamp: Ain’t no cat talisman
Instant Swamp (2009)
Also known as: インスタント沼 Instant Numa
Director: Satoshi Miki
Writer: Satoshi Miki
Kumiko Aso – Haname
Ryo Kase – Gas
Morio Kazama – Denkyu
Keiko Matsuzaka – Mirodi
Shoko Aida – Iiyama
Takashi Sasano – Magazine boss
Eri Fuse – Ichinose
Miho Shiraishi – Madoka
Shusuke Matsuoka – Futa
Yoichi Nukumizu – Salaryman
Kankuro Kudo – Sawaragi
Tetsu Watanabe – Kumabechi
Yutaka Matsushige – Kawabata
Yoshiyuki Morishita – Otani
Ryo Iwamatsu – Kamesaka