What will audiences find In The Pool? A surprisingly confident feature debut from TV veteran Satoshi Miki – the subject of a retrospective here at the Udine Far East Film Festival – for one thing, a pleasingly loopy and borderline absurd slapstick comedy for another. Built around the skills of comedian Suzuki Matsuo who plays unhinged psychiatrist Dr. Irabu, more deranged by far than any of his patients, the film pokes fun at the always-in-control Japanese psyche while telling the stories of three loosely connected patients.
There is the under-pressure architect who deals with the demands of a massive construction project by swimming for at least an hour a day, every day, until a swim meet and a venereal disease conspire to keep him out of the titular pool thereby sending him into a spiral of stress. There is the young bug-eyed woman, an investigative reporter whose life is slowly being consumed by her obsessive need to check and recheck every detail of her life. Did she turn off the power? Did she turn off the gas? Will she return home to find her apartment a mass of smoking rubble? And, finally, there is the young salaryman divorcee – played memorably by Joe Odagiri – who is plagued by a permanent erection. Through all of their lives Dr. Irabu dances and spins like some mocking force of nature, constantly joking and poking fun at their plights while offering bizarre treatments – throw a rock at the hospital across the street! Go call your ex-wife a putrid whore! – and gleefully acknowledging that he’s doing nothing more than padding his own bill.
As is always the case with these sorts of absurd slapstick films, some characters and storylines get more mileage than others. The architect character from whom the film takes its title is the least engaging of the lot, the obsessive writer starts off slow before delivering a stellar payoff, while the Odagiri storyline is the most compelling from start to finish. The real stars, though, are Suzuki Matsuo – now a Miki regular – who spins through the film with demented adolescent glee and Miki himself, who propels this bit of fluff along – he happily introduced the film by explaining to the audience that they would find no grand artistic statements within – with a sharply written script, a cast of stellar support characters and some brilliant sight gags. Who knew a simple black censorship dot could be so damn funny?
While Miki has not yet shown the sort of consistent brilliance of the true top tier of Japanese comic writer-directors – the second Miki screening of the day, Deathfix, started off brilliant before crumbling under its own weight – In the Pool is an enormously charming and engaging debut, one that shows that when Miki is on his game he can more than play with the big boys. Smart, well performed, and - most importantly - very funny, it’s a winner from start to finish.