Aside from the new Hanna Jo story recently, I haven’t written on this blog in months. That’s true, even with Wonder Woman coming out not that long ago, and even more recently, Spider-Man: Homecoming. I never even penned a commentary on Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2!
But now I’m back, and what has brought me out of these non-writing doldrums? None of those films, actually, but rather another oddity of a film that I recently watched, and it’s called Fish Story.
Some spoilers ahead, but I don’t think they really matter.
I came across Fish Story in my perfunctory research for one of my series of 47 movie blogs, the one about movie apocalypses. It’s a Japanese film that I had to go to a bit of effort to track down. And now, thanks to birthday money, I have!
The movie came out in 2009 and was directed by Yoshihiro Nakmuro. The story is set, partly, in 2012, which at the time was the near future, and a year associated with various end-of-the-world prophecies. In this movie, they seem to be accurate because it turns out that a giant comet is about to crash into the earth. The city (Tokyo, I presume?) is nearly deserted, but one character who is roaming around–an older man–finds a record store, of all things, that is still open.
Inside, he is shocked to find the proprietor and one customer carrying on as if the world was not about to end in the next few hours. The older man is angry and full of bitterness, and he does his level best to drag the others down to his level. It turns out that the customer is just living in denial, and is quickly brought to the edge of hopelessness. But the guy who owns the record store is another story: he’s got a bizarre optimism that the world will yet be okay–a faith that seems grounded in an obscure punk rock song that was pressed into a record some 37 years previously. This song, he suspects, is the key to the world’s salvation.
And here’s the spoiler to the story: he is right. But how is that possible? That’s the journey of the film, and where the enjoyment comes from.
A variety of unrelated short stories follow. Or seemingly unrelated, anyway. After all, this is a movie, and we have a vague idea of what to expect. We know that somehow, the story of the young woman who falls asleep on her ferry ride home, and the story of a young guy who fails to stand up for himself on a road trip, and the story of a group of charlatan prophets of doom, are all going to add up to…something. Something that has meaning, where all the pieces feel like they have a purpose.
And at the center of it all is the story of a band that did punk music before punk was a thing, and the last song they ever recorded, which they put everything into even though they knew it would never sell. These are the characters who get the most screen time, and whom we make the biggest emotional connection with. Their story is one of a group at the end of their dreams, when they realize that it’s all over. They have one more recording session, and then they know that their record company is done with them. Still, facing the end, they ultimately all decide to give it their all with one last track.
And that final song consists of a string of mystifying lyrics, the type that seem to contain meaning which is just a bit out of reach, but still accessible enough that you get why people stop and listen when it’s playing. Here’s a sample of the words (found on someone’s tumblr page, and presumably taken from the subtitles):
If my solitude was a fish
It’d be so enormous, so militant
A whale would get out of there
I know it would
I’m sure it would
Don’t assume that I’m dead
Don’t assume that I’m dead
Music stacked up like wooden blocks
Is the only salvation
Spiritual heresy aside, it definitely grabs your attention, and keeps you wondering. The reveal of where these words come from…where they really come from…is one of the movie’s best.
I went into this film hoping that I’d find something that won me over like Summer Time Machine Blues did. That’s another Japanese movie–a slapstick time-travel comedy–and one of my favorite pieces of cinema. I’ve mentioned it plenty of times on this site. Not surprisingly, Fish Story doesn’t quite reach those heights. It doesn’t have the same charm, and it’s less surprising, as I could see most of the denouement coming before it actually hit.
But one quality it does share with the other film, and that is an ability to set up lots of questions and then to answer them in a satisfying and elegant way. I wasn’t really caught off guard by the ending, but it was kind of exhilarating to see each revelation play out. By the movie’s conclusion, we get it all: how the song came to be recorded, why the book it is based on contains such strange language, why it has a full minute of silence in the middle of it, and how it never sold and yet could have an impact what anyone could have guessed; indeed, beyond what anyone could even be aware of without the benefit of the broad point of view that the movie provides.
Ultimately Fish Story seems to be about a question of relevance. Do our lives, our deeds, our small efforts really matter? The story answers that with a resounding yes, but in a way that keeps most of the characters in the dark. At one point, someone asks the heartfelt question: Is somebody really listening out there? If there’s anybody, I want to know. Is this reaching you? Most of the characters never know. Like most of us, they don’t receive the full answer to their hopes and questions. But in this skillfully told story, this realism makes the ultimate victory more satisfying.
So this is a movie that works. The characters are detailed and specific, the mini-plots are engaging, there is a good variety of storytelling tones, there is an earned sense of triumph at the end, and the song that it is all built around is indeed kind of awesome.