(2009) Directed by: Yoshihiro Nakamura; Written by Tamio Hayashi; Based on the novel by Kôtarô Isaka; Starring: Atsushi Itô, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Noriko Eguchi, Hidekazu Mashima, Gaku Hamada, Mikako Tabe, Mirai Moriyama, and Kengo Kôra; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD.
“We thought of getting all the songs to be performed by someone else, but after two months, the band grew together and became very close; something you can’t recreate. They go drinking together like normal friends in a band, and that’s a really good thing.” – Yoshihiro Nakamura (on the film’s fictional band, Gekirin)
Can an obscure punk rock song save the world? Yoshihiro Nakamura’s endlessly inventive film Fish Story (based on a novel by Kôtarô Isaka) has the answer. The aptly named movie title carries a double meaning, referring to a tall tale (which this certainly is), as well as a fictional book, which becomes the basis for a song. In tune with its unique subject matter, Fish Story shuns a conventional narrative, in favor of a more unorthodox path. Thus, begins a chain of events spanning 37 years (and then some), assembling a puzzle that can’t be fully deciphered until all the pieces have fallen into place. Like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, the audience members become unstuck in time, as we jump from one year to another.
The opening segment, set in a record store in 2012, mere hours before a comet is slated to strike the Earth, sets the tone for the rest of the film. In the impending wake of the collision, the population of Japan is about to be wiped out by a 100-meter tidal wave, and the streets are deserted as citizens flee for higher ground. It’s business as usual inside the record shop, as the unflappable store owner (Omori Nao) introduces his lone customer to a rare record from a band that never made it big. There’s something about this album, however, that provides a shred of hope. Even though things look woefully bleak, he believes “Champions of Justice will save humanity.”
The story abruptly shifts to 1982, focusing on nerdy Masashi (Gaku Hamada), who’s little more than a punching bag for his obnoxious friends. He’s about to have a date with destiny when he meets Haruko (Seiko Iwaido), a young woman in a restaurant with a strange prophecy. Their chance encounter leads to a fateful night on a lonely stretch of road. In a theme that repeats throughout the film, Masashi is forced to stand up for himself and rise up against adversity. Hamada creates one of the film’s standout performances (in a movie full of exceptional performances), by credibly conveying someone with a mixture of self-loathing and low self-esteem. His transformation from zero to hero is satisfying, while never seeming contrived or perfunctory.
Panasonic’s slogan, “Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time,” could easily apply to the punk band Gekirin (roughly translated as “Wrath”). We find them playing in a cocktail lounge in 1973, to a reception ranging from apathetic to belligerent. But one person in the crowd, Okazaki (Nao Ômori), hears their potential, offering to be their manager. He recognizes their music as more than just sound and fury; it’s an ethos – a backlash to mass-marketed, polished sound, coupled with a DIY aesthetic. Skip forward a couple of years, when things are finally looking up for the band, until the record company gets cold feet, pulling the plug on their contract. Subsequently, their first album is destined to become their only album. In desperation, leader Shigeki (Atsushi Itô) chooses a poorly translated book for the basis of the album’s title track., “Fish Story.” Despite their best efforts, Gekirin remains unappreciated in their time, relegated to the dust bin of history – or so we thought. Like the music it represents, “Fish Story” is more than a song. It’s the thread that weaves throughout the film, with its potent combination of high-energy riffs and ambiguous lyrics. The minute-long silent passage in the middle of the song only adds to the fun, prompting speculation by music fans about its significance.
* Fun Fact: According to the “Making of” featurette, only half of the members had prior musical experience: Kiyohiko Shibukawa, who plays the band’s drummer, and Toshimitsu Okawauchi (member of the band “Drive Far”), who plays guitarist Ryoji.
Another pivotal moment takes place in 2009, onboard a ferry bound for Hokkaido. Asami (Mikako Tabe), an astute but absent-minded high school science major, misses her stop after she falls asleep. The despondent young student meets a mild-mannered ferry snack bar employee (Mirai Moriyama) with a bold claim. She humors him, with his story about training all his life to become a “Champion of Justice” (“It’s a vague ambition when you think about it. It’s not like wanting to be a lawyer or a soccer player.”), but it’s hard not to feel captivated by the tale. He soon gets his moment of truth when armed religious zealots hijack the ship, and he takes it upon himself to stop them. Will he succeed? I wouldn’t dare spoil it.
One of the many charms of Fish Story is that you never quite know what to expect from one moment to the next (watch for some fun little nods to Armageddon and The Karate Kid). The infectious title song is another highlight – it’s easy to believe it holds some greater meaning for the characters. Watching the seemingly haphazard string of coincidences add up is a thing of beauty. Only when the events are told in a non-linear fashion can the big picture be fully appreciated. After all, it’s not about whether or not the world is saved, it’s about the journey. One viewing isn’t enough to appreciate the plot’s ingenuously intricate construction. Fish Story was released with little fanfare in the States, and seems to have vanished into obscurity, not unlike Gekirin’s album. It’s long overdue for re-discovery by a new generation of film fans.