Some directors are like fashion brands, churning out immediately identifiable product the same way again and again. Others are more like a hot stock: a spectacular rise, followed by an equally spectacular fall. There are also those who are like an underperforming athlete who suddenly changes into a worldbeater. The talent may have been there all along, but sometimes the reasons for the turnabout are elusive.
Satoshi Miki, whose day job is as a director of hit TV comedy shows and dramas, falls into the last category. I’ve enjoyed most of his films, beginning with 2005′s “In the Pool,” a comedy about three wacky patients of an even madder psychiatrist.
But with Miki there has always been a “but”: terrific gag ideas, but shaky plot structures; likable quirky characters, but they don’t develop so much as shamble. In short, his films, including the inventively titled “Kame wa Igai ni Hayaku Oyogu (Turtles Swim Faster Than Expected),” also from 2005, and 2007′s “Zukkan ni Nottenai Mushi (Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia),” have been patchy affairs, albeit with flashes of crazy brilliance.
In his new film “Ten Ten (Wanderings),” Miki finally puts together a great game — er, comedy — from start to finish. His two principals — an eternal college student and a middle-aged debt collector — still shamble through the story, but this time they have a definite goal, and their relationship grows as they pursue it.
The gags are still funny, but offer more than usual from Miki in that they reveal character and advance the story. The premise — two strangers spend a few strange days walking around Tokyo — is typically Miki in its improbability, but by the end their journey makes a kind of poetic sense.
There is no obvious lesson-learning, but real bonding takes place, and real changes occur. The same is true of heroes in other offbeat road pics, but Miki sets the credibility bar higher than most, which make his clearing of it all the most impressive. But enough of the sports metaphors.
Miki has a talent for drawing inspired comic performances from noncomedians, including his “Ten Ten” leads, Tomokazu Miura and Joe Odagiri. Miura, who shot to fame in the 1970s as pop diva Momoe Yamaguchi’s love interest in film after hit film (and husband since 1980), has since matured into a versatile character actor who deftly works both sides of the comic/dramatic divide, with zero trace of star ego.
Miura’s turn as the irascible debt collector, Fukuhara, is his best yet, the sort of performance that reveals as much about the tired tricks of other actors in similar roles as it does about the character itself. Instead of coasting with prickly old-guy shtick, Miura creates an inner world for Fukuhara with its own cast-iron logic that may seem bizarre to rational outsiders, but makes absolute sense to Fukuhara himself.
Odagiri’s student, Takemura, is at first baffled and intimidated by Fukuhara, but at the same time charmed and fascinated by his oddball honesty. Something of an oddball himself in the Japanese industry — think a Johnny Depp with stranger hair and role choices — Odagiri is perfectly in tune with what Miura is trying to do, while going beyond slacker cliches to a different, cooler dimension of his own: Odagiri World.
Takemura begins the film as an 8th-year college student who has somehow managed to accumulate ¥840,000 in debt.
Abandoned by his parents in childhood, he has no one to turn to for the cash.
One night a stranger with a grubby trenchcoat and grizzly beard, Fukuhara, bursts into his apartment, puts him in a chokehold and demands the dough, or else. Takemura agrees to scrape it up, but his feeble attempts, including a losing pachinko session, fail miserably. Then, the day before the debt comes due, Fukuhara comes to Takemura with an unusual offer: walk with him from Kichijoji to Kasumigaseki, for ¥1 million, paid on successful completion. Takemura has no choice but to go along.
On the first day of the walk, Fukuhara tells Takemura his reason for it: He killed his wife and intends to give himself up at the Sakuradamon police station. Takemura, a law student, urges Fukuhara to go to the nearest cop shop — if the police discover the body before he turns himself in, the hand of the law will be heavier, Takemura explains — but Fukuhara refuses to change his plan: It’s Sakuradamon or nothing. They have many adventures and make many stops along the way, including a stay at the home of a club mama (Kyoko Koizumi) who serves as Fukuhara’s “emergency wife.” Don’t ask me to explain that one.
Meanwhile, his real wife’s scatter-brained colleagues at the supermarket where she works note her absence, but can’t get it together to find out what happened to her. Fukuhara and Takemura will have plenty of time to make what is not just a hike around picturesque Tokyo landmarks, but a journey of remembrance. Fukuhara, we see, loved his wife: Her (unseen by the audience) death was evidently an accident, though he admits responsibility.
Doesn’t sound like the material of the next Ben Stiller comedy, does it? But in Miki’s hands, Fukuhara’s long march to the clink starts to feel, if not normal, at least possible. Also, the types he and Takemura encounter, including an elderly gent in a white superhero costume and a busker with a guitar and portable amp who plays power riffs as he strolls, make this odd couple look almost average.
“Ten Ten” made me feel better about living in Tokyo — other cities may have better housing or wider sidewalks or cleaner air, but we have more interesting weirdness.