Atsushi ItoMikako TabeGaku HamadaKengo Kora
Fish Story
Medium: film
Year: 2009
Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura
Writer: Kotaro Isaka, Tamio Hayashi
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Vincent Giry, Gaku Hamada, Atsushi Ito, Kengo Kora, Mirai Moriyama, Yoshihiro Nagata, Nao Ohmori, Mikako Tabe
Format: 112 minutes
Website category: Japanese
Review date: 8 December 2010
No, not Shooting Fish, Go Fish or Big Fish. What's with the fish?
It's a breakout Japanese film. There aren't many of those. Most films never get much of an international profile, except among people like me who look out for that kind of thing. That's true around the world, not just in Japan. Admittedly you couldn't pretend that this particular film was a Ringu-scale blockbuster, but I've seen quite a few Western film fans getting enthusiastic about it and it did manage to get reviews in The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian.
Don't go in with overblown expectations, though. It's not a masterpiece or even particularly ambitious, except in its narrative tricks. It's not reinventing Japanese cinema. There's also something rather anticlimactic about it, since the whole point of the story is that a chain of coincidence can lead from one tiny seed in the 1970s to the world being saved forty years later. That probably doesn't sound anticlimactic, but the problem is that we're the only people who can see all this. The characters never know. They all exist in their little bubbles of space and time, mostly isolated from each other and involved in their own little stories. The results of all this are sweet and rather lovely, but it's still an abstract kind of payoff that's flying way over the heads of everyone on-screen.
It's a shaggy dog story, basically. We follow all these different people doing disconnected things and the punchline is that we're shown a chain of causality linking them. It's tenuous. However it's real. The world really is saved thanks to a punk song recorded by an unsuccessful band in 1975 who then got dumped by their record company. This is a delicate idea, which I'm guessing will have ever-increasing impact on repeat viewings. You'll see the connections in advance and you'll bring along more emotional baggage. The good news though is that all the different stories are interesting. You could almost call it a linked anthology, except that it's an understated and charming one.
We begin in 2012. A comet's about to destroy the earth. The Americans launched Operation Armageddon to blow it up with nukes, but they failed and... yes, that is a reference to the 1998 Bruce Willis film. Now everyone's been evacuated to the mountains, for what little good it'll do them, and we find ourselves watching three people in a record store. We learn about a forgotten song called Fish Story from a short-lived, unsuccessful band, then we hear it played. (First line of the lyrics: "if my solitude were a fish.")
We skip back to 1975. The band is recording it.
We skip forward to 1982. Two fans of the paranormal are listening to obscure songs in the car and bullying the driver. They end up meeting a girl with the second sight, who predicts that one of them will save the world. "Do you believe in Nostradamus's prophecies?"
We skip forward further and a bunch of idiots are waiting for the world to end... in 1999. They believe in Nostradamus, you see.
The whole film's like that, but it's less flighty than I'm making it sound. The characters are established quickly and deftly. There are probably four main stories, although I had to sit there and count on my fingers to reach that conclusion. Some of them are heroic, some of them are comedically the opposite and some of them are delusional scum who deserve a punch in the face and are putting themselves in line to get it. An odd, self-deprecating superhero saves a girl who goes on to be important, and so on. Actually he's really a waiter. He doesn't even have a costume.
The punks have the most sombre, philosophical story. After all, we know they're going to fail and be forgotten. However what's charming about them is that they know it and they aren't letting it stop them. They have a manager who's passionate about their music, even though he knows it'll never sell. There are subtle touches like one of the band being retained by the record label even though the other three are being let go, which is added as a human touch even though we never learn what happened with that. Did he say yes? Did he refuse, to stand by his friends? The latter seems unlikely, but there's nothing selfish about the guy and they all believe in what they're doing. There's a scene late in the movie where they're all having their last drink together and their manager hypothesises frivolously that one day, their music will save the world.
Of course, it will.
It's sweet, but not saccharine. There are bitter, deluded, mean-spirited people in here too, while even the nice ones will often have a surprising side to them. No, make that "usually". The band's drummer has seven children, for instance.
It's a medium budget production. Its period recreations of 1975, 1982, etc. were acceptable without ever being noticeable. The plot structure's too esoteric for the really big bucks. Visually it looks fine. It's doing the job. It's certainly not a shoestring production and in any case it's really all about its characters. As for the actors, I liked them all, although I raised my eyebrows at the eccentric crying from the schoolgirl on the ferry. People I recognised include Ichi the Killer and a Satan's Toenail from the Kekko Kamen franchise, but we shouldn't hold that against them and they were both very good.
It's based on a novel by Kotaro Isaka, who's had quite a few screen adaptations. Two others are even by this film's director: 'Golden Slumber' and 'The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God'. Golden Slumber came out this year and I'm hearing good things about that too. At the time I only liked this film, but mulling it over afterwards for this review made me more emotional towards it. My eyes have been prickling. These days I hardly ever rewatch films without a reason, but I'm really interested in seeing how I react to a second viewing of this one. I think there's a ton hidden under its surface for later discovery. I'd better stop writing now because I have a feeling that the more I think about this one, the more positive I'm going to get about it and I don't want to start overstating things.
It's also got a sense of humour, enough that I've seen it called a comedy although that label wouldn't have occurred to me. Instead, based on this first viewing, I'd call it offbeat, understated and gently amusing.