Starring: Kengo Kora Atsuki Ito Nao Omori Mikako Tabe Vincent Giry
Running time: 112 min.
Reviewed by Eric Evans
Fish story – (noun) an incredible or far-fetched story.
"Fish Story" starts unassumingly enough. It's 2012 and the Earth is doomed: a massive meteor is hurtling toward our planet, its impact due in a matter of hours. A lone middle-aged man is walking through the deserted streets. All the stores are closed except for one record shop, and inside the owner is relaxing and telling his best (and at this point, only) customer stories about bands as they play records. The man crashes their listening party, and is quick to try and crush any hopeful sentiment regarding the planet's certain doom with casual humor ("Who's going to save us, Bruce Willis?"). Record store guy shrugs off any fears of his impending mortality and starts relating an elaborate tale about the inspiration behind the unusual title track of his favorite album, "Fish Story" by Gekirin. With the start of this (tall?) tale almost 40-odd years earlier, the film really begins.
Spanning several decades and following many characters, Director Yoshihiro Nakamura's movie is an elaborate and glorious puzzle. The various narratives unfold in roughly chronological order, occasionally overlapping, and introducing characters who are seemingly unrelated: an assistant who can't stand up for himself, a cruise ship chef trained from birth to defend the defenseless, a punk band that predated the Sex Pistols, a teenage mathematician… If, when and how their stories intertwine is one of this year's great movie surprises. If that sounds gimmicky, it isn't. "Fish Story" quietly and increasingly one-ups itself as it barrels along, building narrative steam toward a completely satisfying conclusion.
Nakamura is the writer/director behind recent Japanese hits "Glorious Team Batista" and "Triumphant General Rouge" -- clever and talky character-driven medical whodunits featuring a love/hate relationship between mismatched protagonists -- and he's the screenwriter of both Hideo Nakata's "Dark Water" and seeing-eye-dog tearjerker "Quill". That kind of effective emotional range qualifies as something between versatility and schizophrenia, and Nakamura brings all that storytelling skill to bear on "Fish Story". While he didn't write it, it's clear that his facility for juggling plots and personalities serves the film's many stories well. All of them vary in tone, and each is told with a vibrancy and heart that makes them feel authentic. The quiet emotional scenes ring true, the action clicks, and the punk band's performances feel like genuine shows by musicians. Any one of those things work and you've got a decent film, but for all of them to harmonize like this you've got to have talent or luck or both. Add to that a game cast, and "Fish Story" becomes one of the must-see, most-fun Japanese films of 2009.
Unlike other films that combine disparate storylines into a single narrative string by the film's end (Hao Ning's funny and deranged "Crazy Racer" comes to mind), "Fish Story" doesn't have a single character that ties all the loose ends neatly together, and none of the protagonists is ever aware that they're playing a vital part in a grand scheme. That's the film's charm. No one onscreen gets the joke, but the audience does. It's a joke that starts in 1975 and has a punchline in 2012, and you won't mind the delivery taking a few odd years.
In a perfect world, Japan would have chosen this smart yet crowd-pleasing tale as their official Academy Awards entry for 2009. How better to follow the staid and mannered charms of "Departures" than with a kinetic, multi-layered story about saving the world?