Fish Story

Fish Story

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Tokyo, 2012. A comet is due to collide with Earth in five hours, with apocalyptic consequences for the human race. Everyone has fled the city for higher ground - all except for a bitter middle-aged man in a wheelchair, the younger owner of a record store, and his one optimistic customer. The end is nigh, and yet the store owner puts on an old vinyl. It is the song Fish Story, by Gekirin (or 'Wrath') - a long-forgotten band who had the misfortune of breaking up a year before their anarchic brand of punk was 'discovered' and popularised by the Sex Pistols. With its gentle intro, its obscure lyrics and its section of total silence where the guitar solo should be, Fish Story is certainly a curiosity – but that hardly seems to justify the owner's calm insistence that "this song will save the world."

Of course, music has saved the world before. In Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) the murderous vegetables were brought to their (metaphorical) knees by the song Puberty Love, in Mars Attacks! (1996) the alien invaders' out-sized brains exploded at the sound of Slim Whitman's Indian Love Call, and in Japan's own Wild Zero (2000) both extra-terrestrials and zombies are defeated by no less than the power of rock and roll. Yet if the opening of Nakamura Yoshihiro's oddball epic Fish Story evokes all these films, as well as expressly referencing the disaster blockbusters 2012 (2009) and Armageddon (1998), it is nonetheless headed in a rather different direction, where heroics are humanised and salvation is split between chance, providence and a rigorous (if cryptic) causality.

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Nakamura may revel in his cinematic influences, gleefully pastiching everything from The Karate Kid (1984) to Under Siege (1992), but it is influence of another kind that is his principal preoccupation, as he illustrates a collection of supposed failures beating the odds to inspire eventual success. And so, through an episodic, time-leaping narrative, the film traces the serendipitous links between events that span over half a century and build to a surprise conclusion.

In the early Eighties, timid Masashi meets a girl with prophetic powers, listens to Fish Story on his car's cassette player, and learns to stand up for himself. In the late Noughties, schoolgirl Asami learns a lesson in self-confidence from a ferryboat waiter who has trained since his boyhood - without ever really understanding why - to be a 'champion of justice'. In the mid-Seventies, a proto-punk band puts up one last fight to record an uncompromising version of what they know is to be their swansong, taking its words and title from the only remaining copy of a book recalled before it could ever be published. During Japan's post-war period of occupation, an impoverished husband takes a job as an English translator to feed his children – despite having no knowledge of English.

Taken individually, each of these stories is concerned with quixotic characters tilting at windmills, as they rebel against circumstance, oppression or the Man, with little assurance that their efforts will achieve anything – yet for all their apparent absurdity, these disparate scenarios build a picture of a benign and purposeful cosmos where every act of resistance or recalcitrance plays its oblique but crucial part, through a chain of influence, in the continuities of human experience.

Adapted, like Nakamura's The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck, and God In A Coin Locker (2007) and Golden Slumber (2010), from the writings of Isaka Kotaro, Fish Story may at first seem almost aleatoric in its structure, but this punkish chronicle of hope enduring in extremis and heroism paid forward turns out to be much more than a mere shaggy dog story. Rather it is, much like the song that it celebrates, a mystery whose very obscurities and ellipses are essential to its ultimate, inspiring triumph – while the puzzles and paradoxes left in its wake will repay multiple viewings.

Reviewed on: 04 May 2010
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A record shop owner insists that one of the records in his store will "save the world".
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Terracotta 2010

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