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Friday, March 27, 2009

'Fish Story'

For enlightenment, step this way

Film critics like to be surprised, which comes from being unsurprised too many times. This critic, however, has become tired of "The Sixth Sense" school of script writing, enamored as it is of that 1999 hit's sleight-of-hand ending. But while a good magician can fool the eye in dozens of ways, a scriptwriter can create only one big trick called the plot — and as script-writing teachers never tire of repeating, nearly all can be boiled down to a handful of patterns. The hero wins, the hero loses — the hero turns out to be a ghost. How many variations can you try on that last trick (the hero turns out to be an alien?) before the audiences see it coming a mile off.

Fish Story Rating: (4.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Fish Story
Hitting a high: Kengo Kora (left) and Atsushi Ito in "Fish Story" © 2009 "FISH STORY" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (March 27, 2009)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Yoshihiro Nakamura is a confessed fan of "The Sixth Sense" director M. Night Shymalan. Nearly all his films mess with the minds of the audience on various levels, from the mundane whodunit, as in the medical mystery "Team Batista no Eiko" ("The Glorious Team Batista," 2008), to the reality-is-a-big-fat-illusion cosmic, as in the cult hit "Ahiru to Kamo no Coin Locker" ("The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God," 2007).

While Shymalan has struggled to top "The Sixth Sense," Nakamura has followed a mostly upward path to "Fish Story," his 10th film as director and by far his best.

Based on a novel by Kotaro Isaka, who also supplied the story for "Ahiru to Kamo no Coin Locker," "Fish Story" reveals its true message only in its final minutes, while carefully preparing us for it from scene one. The big revelation, though, is less a clever plot trick than an eternal verity, presented in a dazzling rush of images. I walked out of the theater feeling more hopeful about humanity and my own luck. Not a bad way to be in the current dire world situation.

The film skips back and forth between four stories in four main time periods as well as four genres (music, seishun eiga ["youth film"], action and sci-fi). One story follows the fortunes of a pioneering "punk" band from 1973 to its breakup in 1975. Another, set in 1982, focuses on a wimpy college boy (Gaku Hamada) given a chance to prove his courage. A third centers on a ferry-boat waiter (Mirai Moriyama) who dreams of martial arts glory and a teenage passenger (Mikako Tabe) he tries to save from forces of evil.

The film starts, however, in 2012. Only five hours remain, we are told, until a comet will slam into the Earth and obliterate all life. A middle-aged man (Kenjiro Ishimaru) in a wheelchair wanders through an abandoned shopping arcade until he comes across a record store. He walks (!) inside, where he finds the goateed manager (Nao Omori) with a nerdy customer, discussing the song "Fish Story" by the aforementioned punk band.

The man thinks they are insane — don't they know humanity is kaput? — but the manager denies it. "A fighter for justice will save the world," he says.

The heroes of all four stories are losers and/or dreamers who struggle against the bad realities around them, to the detriment of their status, career and even survival. It is hard, however, to see how their stories will tie up, as the chronology shifts back and forth and the comet draws ever closer.

Also, at certain points the action grinds to a halt, as when the band members and their harried manager (Omori again) discuss the title of their new song at incredible length. Why "Fish Story?" And what on Earth does it really mean?

This could have easily become tiresome, but the characters are engaging types who tackle big issues without becoming pompous or ridiculous. Instead, a current of wry humor runs through the film, though those expecting an uproarious black comedy will be disappointed.

I wasn't, though, since Nakamura makes it clear early on that he is after something bigger than easy laughs. Bigger fish, you might say, such as five final minutes of pure cinematic satori.

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