As we all know, if zombies don’t rise up first, the apocalypse will actually come from a giant meteor unstoppably hurtling toward earth. Of course, there’s already been a movie made about meteors that turn people into zombies, so a combination is possible, but those odds are astronomical, my friends. With the impending threat of annihilation at the hands of a lifeless space rock, you should already be figuring out what you plan to do in your last hours on earth. Making love to your beautiful wife (or handsome husband) or sexy stranger (or sexy mild-acquaintance) is a popular choice. Destroying property and acting anti-social with wanton disregard is another. I would probably do a bit of both, but more than anything else, I’d want to find myself riding out the last afternoon in existence inside a record shop. Finally there’s a movie for people like me.
In 2012, with a meteor large enough and close enough to be seen looming in the midday sky, three men spend the afternoon inside a record store listening to an obscure band named Gekirin which released the largely un-purchased “Fish Story” album in a proto-punk move that came before the Sex Pistols. In 2007, a man saves a young girl from hijackers. In 1982, a group of friends discusses “Fish Story,” the mysterious silence in the middle of the song, and its curse. In 1975, the starving band Gekirin tries to fit a new sound into a world that isn’t ready for it. In the 1950s, a man is hired to translate an English-language novel into Japanese.
The sheer brilliance of this film is in how simple it remains while dealing with so many disparate stories. It could have easily been weighed down and confusing, but the unifying story of the band (which ends up getting its lion’s share of screen time) and the song they create ties everything together in a catchy little bow. Because of this, and because the dialog is minorly expository without ever being bland, it’s easy to tell about what time period each story is taking place.
It’s also held together by a shared theme. From the understated fear of the end of the world, to the fear of never achieving a dream, to the fear of being killed by terrorists – there is a steady question of what we regret, what we leave undone, what we do in the last hours of our existence as proof of what’s important to us.
But don’t get the wrong idea and think this is all drama. Far from it. Fish Story is a very effective comedy that pushes beyond borders by making jokes with a basic human element to them. There’s bound to be more than a few moments that sailed over my lack of knowledge about Japanese culture, but most of the jokes are delivered with great heart and timing, and are based around human failings we can all relate to. It deals with some core questions, and they get a bit heavy, but the balance is perfect. It even manages a great joke about “Project Armageddon,” an attempt by the U.S. to blow up the meteor with nukes.
Somehow, the cherry on top of the swirled-genre sundae is the science fiction element of the impending doom faced by all world citizens. Nothing like knowing a tidal wave is going to rip you to shreds to get you thinking about mortality on the grand scale and listen to your favorite LPs, right?
The characters are brilliantly colored and acted adeptly. From Kora Kengo who plays the frontman for the band dealing with his own personal success at the expense of his bandmates to Mirai Moriyama who plays a waiter who bravely kicks an impressive amount of terrorist ass (did I mention they worked in a stellar fight scene?). Everyone involved adds to an already-strong script by Tamio Hayashi. Dialog is sharp, and there’s even room for character development despite each story sharing a finite running time with several other episodic tales.
With a unifying theme, the movie is on of the best versions of how to create loosely related episodes (although the further into the film, the more the worlds of each story collide). It’s also a bit of a mystery that fills itself in as it goes along. The title should warn you that you’re watching a long yarn which might be mostly embellishment, but it’s incredibly fun to watch elements of the band’s story pop up or get explained in other interwoven sections. Plus, when it does all come together, it’s done so artfully and gracefully, belying the fact that the writer and director Yoshihiro Nakamura knew what they were doing from the beginning instead of simply making it up as they went along. The puzzle fitting together isn’t neat in a predictable way; it’s told cleanly because it’s how the history of the larger story went and it’s presented as matter-of-factly as that. Instead of shoe-horning coincidences as catalysts, the movie explores the dominoes that naturally led to where the world is in that last desperate moment, and seeing how everything falls into its place is truly fascinating in Fish Story’s case.
The camera work isn’t anything special, and with a larger budget they might have been able to really distinguish each time period from one another. It could be problematic, but the script makes up for any question of which year it is at any given time. From a pacing standpoint, it does run a little long with a few obvious scenes that could have easily gotten the ax without any damage done to the cohesiveness of the story. Beyond that, there’s very little to complain about.
Fish Story is compelling, creative, and sets a rare example of throwing out filmmaking rules and still building something beautiful and understandable. The characters are endearing and familiar, and the scenes are laid out strategically so that the bigger picture can be revealed alongside more mysteries. But above all else, the film achieves two basic feats by both asking why three men would choose to waste their time listening to music until their world was wiped out and showing how that choice is ultimately meaningful.
The Upside: A well-told, creative story about human fears and the strange turns life can take with strong acting, humor and even an intense fight scene.
The Downside: The pacing is a little slow, some scenes could have been cut.
On the Side: The movie is based on the novel by Kotara Isaka who has had 7 other film adaptations made from his novels.