Issue X, Volume IV : June 2013
Lately I’ve been pleased with my accidental Netflix finds: one of my Flixy categories is “Critically Acclaimed Cerebral Visually-Striking Foreign Independent Movies” – or something like that. That’s where I tripped onto Fish Story.
Take a bit of M. Night Shyamalan-style twists, add whimsy and hope along with a dose of nascent punk-frenzy – and then time-bending and the end of the world – and you will start to imagine the pleasure of Fish Story. This 2009 Japanese release, directed by Yoshihiro Nakamura, won the Special Award for Best Pop Culture Rush at the New York Asian Film Festival. But really it is more than just a rush or dose; the joy of viewing lies in the inventive story, cinematic daring, integrated music and, most of all, the deployment of inventive (and destabilizing!) narrative gaps.
Sometimes I leave accidental finds quickly – too distant or too precious, too ‘been there’ or too presentational. Not so with Fish Story. From the quick opening shot of televised 70’s Go Ranger heroes, to a perplexing sequence of an ornery older man in a wheel-chair knocking over bicycles on a deserted Tokyo street, and then a poetic existential dialogue in Coconuts Records about the end of the world; well, I was hooked.
The basics are this. The Year 2012: A world-ending comet is just hours away from smashing into the Earth, and three men accidentally convene in an empty record store and contemplate the career of the Japanese punk band Gekirin (Wrath), while confronting the ultimate dilemma in the face of epic disaster. As they listen to the perplexing arrangement of the band’s last album, they question whether music can save the world. Maybe not now (with a flaring comet coming straight at us) but, as they ponder, the film flips back 37 years to the final recording session of the band– and then unexpectedly dances through the decades, back and forth, landing on a cult, a hijacked ferry, a family, a botched romance, and back to the band and the record store. There’s no predicting where it goes.
Back to the gaps. I personally am fond of what I call the neuron rush that comes with trying to figure out the meaning of disconnected imagery and scenes – when done well, of course. Gratuitous jumps and cuts can just generate an adrenaline fury without meaning. But in Fish Story, the pastiche of story elements may be bewildering, but each sequence is unique enough to stand on its own. The ferry mini–story, with the unexpected actions of a baker and a kidnapped passenger, prove to elude all expectation. I’m sure some might find it frustrating, but the juxtaposition of innocence and insanity with intriguing gaps of information is refreshing. Also, Fish Story does the genre dance that quite a few Japanese, Korean, and Indian films deploy and this also keeps the brain-tease in flow: you can never be sure whether the next scene will be drama, comedy, music, martial arts, or mystery.
However, it’s not all whimsy and flash: the movie works emotionally and artistically on several levels. First, there’s some sweet and straight acting. With this many characters and with so many ‘leads’ individual performances could be lost and there could be a reduction of impact, but as with Altman’s Short Cuts the density allows a diverse, real world slice that calls up an emotional connection to a variety of characters – both comic and dramatic. As in Short Cuts, the script allows the characters to discover, confront and resolve improbable and difficult situations, and all the actors dig into their unique tasks. From Goro’s (Kengo Kora) acceptance of the band’s demise to Masami’s (Mikako Tabe) discovery of self and ability under epic distress, the actors embody both the absurdity and humanity of their characters.
Another linking device is the main song, claiming to be the first punk song ever. It too is called “Fish Story” and plays throughout in different scenes. There’s a great meta magic here: the lyrics are based on a mistranslation of a book called “Fish Story” and, on the album, this song has a minute-long silence (another gap) that is not explained till late in the movie. The best thing is that it’s a great tune, evoking the angst and beauty of the characters and the movie: “My solitude is a fish…”
The movie also sustains our involvement because of the underlying positive tone. The design and dialogue play with a colorful and kind sensibility. Although the characters misinterpret, misread, make assumptions and mess up – and even though the end of the world is imminent – the consistent thread is the implication that chance and imperfection bear out their own ways to excellence, but also that hope is never totally assured. This allows an exploration of philosophical questions, such as “What is the meaning of faith?” and “How does the individual navigate a chaotic world?” I’d sum up the Fish message this way: mistakes can become salvation when you give up the judgment and move forward. Yeah, a bit big, but a good message not often proposed in cinema.
Maybe the magic of Fish Story lies in its source material. It was adapted by screenwriter Tamio Hayahi from a novel by Kōtarō Isaka, a Japanese novelist known for quirky mysteries, genre bending, and complex characters. Adaptations of this kind of material can be difficult, especially when there are many characters and story lines; often screenwriters cut characters, locations, and whole story lines to match traditional film practice. But in Fish Story, Hayahi’s script, along with Nakamura’s pastiche of styles and edits, allows the complexity to survive: we are tuned to an every-changing visuality, but the filmmakers also allow in an unexpected sweetness and tenderness. It’s a mix that not many American filmmakers will attempt or studios will allow.
In the end, I felt the sense of satisfaction comes from the not just the outcomes of the collective stories, but from the combination of interplay of characters and identities, with an attempt at bringing meaning to all of them. Unlike many movie-watching experiences, where you experience the rush, but then completely forget the story, this movie makes you work, and working those neurons means you will make connections and that means you will remember. Sure, The Avengers was splashy but I didn’t gain much, and really I can’t tell you a story from that grand flash.
So, if as a viewer you can deal with seven stories tossed in the air, mixed around, and relinquish the need for resolution, or any guess about the possible plot, Fish Story may be for you. I know: many viewers want to immediately “grock” the functions of characters, anticipate the hero’s journey, seek fulfillment in traditional narrative questions – and frankly, sometimes I am one of the those viewers. But occasionally I like my limbs wrapped around all the branches of a strange tree. With my eyes closed, in a storm. Oh, and with great music turned up loud. Yeah. That’s the experience of Fish Story.
I’m not sure if the phrase ‘fish story’ has the same idiomatic meaning in Japan, but I think it does. “An improbable, boastful tale” does describe the movie, and tips us off that the unexpected will happen and that it might even be elevated to a higher lever – but there aren’t that many movies that actually succeed at doing this.
Fish Story is not a perfect ride – partly because of the delayed gratification, and partly because of some tenuous and random leaps – but in the current landscape of linear gloss and smash, this interwoven book of visual short stories provides a dancing horizon without established expectations. And that’s refreshing.
Brenda Varda, a Los Angeles playwright and composer, teaches writing and theatre at Art Center College of Design, the New York Film Academy, and University of California. Her works include Fables du Theatre, Reactor: simple, clean, efficient, and Things That Fall From the Sky. She also teaches creative writing and organizes events through Wordspace, a local literary organization.