Its title either a Fellini reference or just one more non sequitur in a movie with plenty, “And the Mud Ship Sails Away” is a droll first feature effort for director-scenarist Hirobumi Watanabe, his producing-composing sib Yuji, and their Toshigi Prefecture collective Foolish Piggies. Pic spends most of its running time in an early Jim Jarmusch mode of loser’s-life comedy (complete with black-and-white lensing), then takes a flying leap into full-on surrealism that doesn’t entirely work but earns points for sheer chutzpah. Likely to strike viewers as either pointless or hilarious — or conceivably both — it could gain a small cult following with enough fest exposure.
With his porkpie hat, flannel shirt and saggy jeans — a slacker uniform he never seems to change out of — goateed Takashi (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is a cynical hipster in an innocuous rural backwater where it makes absolutely no sense to be one. There isn’t even anyone around to appreciate his ersatz rebelliousness; as becomes increasingly clear, everyone in the community simply considers him a pitiable waste of space. He has no job and no intention of getting one. He also has an ex-wife to whom he avoids paying alimony, and a 5-year-old child he lacks even the curiosity or good manners to inquire after.
When not falling asleep watching TV alongside his ancient, bemused grandmother (Misao Hirayama), he tries his luck at the local pachinko parlor or kicks around with only friend Shohei (Kaoru Iida), who seems a person of comparative driving ambition when he finds employment cleaning out stalls at a local dairy farm.
Falling into their lives without warning is teenager Yuka (Ayasa Takahashi), a previously unknown sister Takashi didn’t know he had, apparently conceived by his late drunkard father via an affair with a Tokyo woman. Sibling bonding does not immediately ensue, as the girl makes it plain she thinks her shiftless, tactless half-brother is a “jerk,” and he chafes at her painfully accurate criticisms. Despite this, she keeps coming back, fleeing an unhappy home situation to hang with Grandma and Shohei while nagging big bro to make something of himself before it’s too late. (He’s 36, but takes great umbrage at the notion that this constitutes “almost 40.”)
At last he’s had enough, taking the only employment opportunity that’s come his way — travel abroad as a drug mule. It’s a bad idea, certain not to end well. Indeed, with the protag’s departure, he and the pic disappear down a rabbit’s hole of nonsensical happenings involving space aliens, which might or might not be a drug-induced hallucination.
Some viewers who have enjoyed the minimalist humor so far may balk at this berserk sudden turn. But there’s an admirable rigor of execution throughout this seemingly aimless and random narrative that pays off in very funny moments, notably a running gag charting Takashi’s escalating altercations with a possible scam artist soliciting door-to-door disaster relief donations.
Shibukawa, who first turned up more than a decade ago in some memorable Takashi Miike and Toshiaki Toyoda films, is pitch-perfect as a hapless hero who boasts a certain purity in his utter lack of redeeming qualities. Supporting players maintain impeccable straight faces. Production values are not exactly fancy, the pic’s minuscule crew being filled out by family and friends, but everything here feels cannily attuned to a wry, singular if not always explicable comic sensibility.