After premiering at the 2013 Tokyo International Film Festival, Hirobumi Watanabe’s slacker comedy “Soshite Dorobune wa Yuku (And the Mud Ship Sails Away)” became an international festival favorite, and it’s easy to see why.

Made on a zero budget in Jim Jarmusch-ian black and white, this debut feature is grounded in Watanabe’s own scuffling life in his native Otawara, a town in the wilds of Tochigi Prefecture.

Knowingly ironic, but totally unpretentious, the film also presumes the audience has zilch acquaintance with Japanese culture, pop or otherwise. The Peter Pan-ish hero, Takashi (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), with his marginal lifestyle and who-cares attitude might as well be living in a gritty, provincial anywhere — say Jarmusch’s Cleveland in “Stranger Than Paradise” — and audiences in Rotterdam (Camera Japan Festival), London (Raindance Film Festival) and Frankfurt (Nippon Connection), among others, could identify.

Soshite Dorobune wa Yuku (And the Mud Ship Sails Away)
Director Hirobumi Watanabe
Run Time 88 minutes
Language Japanese (subtitled in English)
Opens Dec. 13

As could I, though the thought of living the hero’s stuck-in-the-boonies existence gave me the willies. Small-town life may have its charms, but it frequently bored me out of my youthful skull until I finally made my escape.

So why doesn’t Takashi, wearing his pork pie hat and flannel shirt, get out? Living with his half-dotty granny (played by the director’s own 96-year-old grandmother), he spends his days napping under the kotatsu (heated table) — from which we first see him rising like a zombie — playing pachinko and hanging out with his lantern-jawed, similarly unemployed pal, Shohei (Kaoru Iida).

This routine is punctuated by unexpected encounters: First with the visit of a geeky fund-raiser for what Takashi indignantly labels a fake charity for the 3/11 disaster (and he’s probably right); then a fraught parking-lot meeting with his ex-wife, who accuses him of indifference toward his 5-year-old daughter (not that she will ever let him see her again); and an unsettling encounter with a shady character at the pachinko parlor who offers Takashi a job as a drug mule, which he considers but rejects.

Stranger — and more significant — however, is the sudden appearance of Yuka (Ayasa Takahashi), a cheeky teenage girl who claims to be Takashi’s half-sister by his dead reprobate father.

Sitting on one side of the kotatsu, with Takashi on the other and his bemused grandma in the middle, she grills him relentlessly. Finding out he is unemployed at age 36 and in no hurry to find a job, she sizes him up as a loser. Offended, Takashi jabs right back, though he offers the girl a place to sleep for the night, and she settles in for an indefinite stay.

Here is a key to the film’s comedy and popularity: Takashi is a basically decent, harmless guy with a keen nose for pretense and general BS, despite his air of being perpetually teed off and his lazy, scapegrace ways. Admirable? Maybe not. Likeable as well as laughable? Definitely.

Watanabe, who also wrote the script, firmly resists the temptation to give his hero’s story any sort of uplifting arc. After landing a job at a dairy barn, Shohei urges Takashi to follow him into gainful employment. His response is to jibe Shohei about shoveling cow patties. Yuka nags him into a trip to a local aquarium, where a sluggish fish described as a “living fossil” gives her a new label for her do-nothing half-sibling. His reaction is a glum shrug, though the comparison plainly bugs him.

This seed bears weird fruit when Takashi, after succumbing to the pachinko guy’s blandishments, ends up sprawled on a foreign hotel-room floor with small, dubious-looking packets scattered around him. He then embarks on what might be a drug trip or a nightmare — or a sequence in an alien abduction movie. From here “Mud Ship” voyages into uncharted waters and never returns.

Despite its head-scratcher of a climax, the film is kept on comic course by Shibukawa. This former model turned in-demand supporting actor is not the usual Beta-male slacker onscreen. Instead he is closer to Toshiro Mifune in his scratching, grimacing, shambling “Yojimbo” incarnation: funny, but also naturally cool in everything from the way he lights a cigarette to his contemptuous brush-off of a smarmy junior high classmate who is running for local office. He also has Mifune’s gift for being watchable even when he doing nothing (or next to it), which is most of the time in this film.

Shibukawa’s Takashi, however, comes across as goofier, hipper and mentally younger than Mifune’s samurai, with an innocent lopsided grin that probably hasn’t changed since primary school. Is there hope? Maybe not. And worries? There’s plenty, but the pachinko parlor beckons — and tomorrow is another day.

Fun fact: “Soshite Dorobune wa Yuku (And the Mud Ship Sails Away)” is part of the “New Directors from Japan” Blu-ray/DVD box set released by Third Window Films of the U.K. in November. Foolish Piggies Films, the production company of Hirobumi Watanabe and brother Yuji, who supplied the film’s score, plan to make other projects set in Tochigi.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.