Why review a Japanese-language film without sensational violence, naked ninjas, or giant robots? Because when it's a movie as smartly comic, raggedly rocking, warmly appealing, and richly rewarding as Yoshihiro Nakamura's Fish Story, you want the whole world to know. Or, at least, people who don't happen to be in Austin right now.
Not that Fish Story is the best movie ever made, but it certainly deserves to be seen by a wider audience than will have a chance to see it at special events like Fantastic Fest. And distributors tend to shy away from films that don't have easily marketable elements, like those mentioned in the opening line. In several important ways, this is a rather modest little flick, and I don't want to hype it out of proportion to its relative merits. But I must say: Fish Story engages, delights, and surprises as it criss-crosses wildly through the decades, and I think it's the kind of movie that a broad variety of people would enjoy, if only they had a chance to sample its many pleasures.
Rather than a fish, or fishes, the linchpin of the narrative is a song entitled "Fish Story," recorded by an obscure Japanese punk band in 1975 (one year before the Sex Pistols were formed). Unappreciated in their own time, the band's song takes on a life of its own over the years, still entrancing listeners in a record store in 2012. A comet is about to strike the earth, and mankind only has five hours left to live. With the rest of the populace departed to supposedly safer high ground, three men come together, listening to the record and fantasizing that, somehow, the song will be able to save the world.
Fish Story develops gently in a way that is both surprising and, yet, almost feels traditional, thanks to all the multi-narrative, time-hopping movies that have sprung up over the past 15 years; in other words, the post-Pulp Fiction generation, a movie which Fish Story in no other way resembles. Whereas some of those movies have wallowed in cynical cool or desperation and despair -- I'm looking at you, Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Babel) -- Fish Story is refreshingly balanced, neither ignorant of the dark tragedies that shadow our lives, nor willing to give up and go along with the tide.
The people of Japan have fled to higher ground in 2012 because the approaching comet will create a tidal wave when it hits, a wave that will wash over the entire country. That set-up pokes fun at itself, referencing a certain Hollywood blockbuster and "Project Armageddon." The film includes several other knowing winks to well-known movies, all in a spirit of fun, without calling unnecessary attention to its cleverness. Fish Story doesn't pander to, or insult the intelligence or interests of the viewer. In other words, you don't need to have seen those movies, or know anything about punk rock or the Japanese music scene in the 70s, to understand how the characters feel as they each in their own way deal with the vicissitudes of life.
The movie is based on a novel by Kotaro Isaka. Director Yoshihiro Nakamura, working from a script by Isaka and Tamio Hayashi, keeps the pace moving forward at a moderate pace, generating forward momentum as various incidents are depicted that gradually are shown to be part of a larger picture. Without giving away any more of the story than needed: a hired driver listens as his two passengers debate the merits of songs with supposedly supernatural overtones. "Fish Story" includes one minute of silence during the song's guitar solo; the mystery of why a record company would release a song with one minute of silence has contributed to its growing underground reputation.
The legend is that people with psychic connections can hear a woman scream during the "silent" minute. The men listen to the song. The passengers wonder about the meaning of its non-sensical lyrics and speculate about the real reason for the silence. The driver is unnerved and feels haunted by one line in particular. Later, the men get drunk in a bar with newly-met women. Still later, the driver faces a moment of truth.
Maybe that description doesn't sound so striking to you, but it's only the framework for Nakamura to spin an episode that will resonate throughout the entire movie. And each episode, each mini-story, is like that, standing on its own yet contributing to the whole. It's a bit of a mystery, but the film as a whole is so genuine, loving, dramatic, and funny that the mystery, when solved, engages, delights, and surprises.
Of course, I already used those words to describe the movie, so that must mean we've come to the end of the review.
The film screens at Fantastic Fest again tonight, September 30, at 6:15 p.m. More information -- and a trailer -- is available at the festival web site. Special thanks to the kindness of programmer Blake Ethridge, also the proprietor of the fine site Cinema is Dope, who snared admission for me to the sold-out screening on Saturday morning.