Sunday, December 11, 2011

REVIEW: Fish on Land

セイジー陸の魚― (Seiji: Riku no Sakana)

Released: 2011

Yusuke Iseya

Hidetoshi Nishijima
Mirai Moriyama
Nae Yuki
Hirofumi Arai
Kenichi Takito

Running time: 108 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Yusuke Iseya went from being a fashion model and the punk protégé of director Hirokazu Koreeda to becoming one of the most bankable movie stars in Japan. Watching his cocky, awkward and utterly charismatic debut performance in Koreeda's 1998 film "Afterlife" doesn't belie some of the tent pole studio productions that Iseya would get tied up in (see Kaz Kiriya's "Casshern" and Fumihiko Sori's "Tomorrow's Joe" as two many examples). Still, during this rise to superstardom the now 35-year-old actor has slowly been nurturing ambitions as a director in his own right. In 2003 Iseya teamed up with friend and screenwriter Takamasa Kameishi for his directorial debut, the youth drama "Kakuto". Now, eight year's later Iseya returns (once again with Kameishi penning the script) with his second feature outing, "Fish on Land". It's story of a young man's summer working at a roadside restaurant often feels like a half-remembered summer from years ago. Some moments come to mind with crystal clarity while others blur out of reach and all slip and repeat in our memory. Constructing a film around ephemeral memories isn't an easy task even for a seasoned director. For a sophomore feature filmmaker like Iseya it might be too daunting a task, but he has managed to impress with a beautiful visual evocation of Tomoki Tsujiuchi's source novel. Unfortunately the narrative thread of the film suffers and some of its characters get lost in the mix.

A po-faced salaryman, looks back on an eventful summer 20 years before. Japan's Bubble Economy has burst and our young protagonist, portrayed by decides to hit the open road on his bicycle for one last vacation before battling it out to find work during the recession. We're treated to lovely shots of rural Japan until this young man literally crashes into his destiny. He is nearly run over by a pompadoured tough guy (Hirofumi Arai) driving a truck, one of a group of locals who call a roadside diner/ bar dubbed House 475 home. Soon our young traveler is bussing tables and washing dishes, and most importantly observing the goings on of House 475, from the farewell concert of a bar band whose bass player (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is heading off to work in an office through a blind old man (Masahiko Tsugawa) and his granddaughter to a lovelorn woman (Nae Yuki) obsessed by the manager of House 475. This would be Seiji (Hidetoshi Nishijima). Like our young traveler, Seiji rolled off the road and up to House 475 years before and made it his adopted home, but he doesn't seem comfortable with the other denizens of the place. There is a different energy in Seiji, a polarity that is the reverse of his environment.

The entire cast of "Fish on Land" are spot on with their performances; but Sadly, the one performance that leaves a little to be desired is that of the lead actor, Hidetoshi Nishijima as the titular fish on land. I don't think that this is necessarily Nishijima's fault, but that of the source novel or the screenplay. For a title character Seiji ends up being more of a mysterious presence than a person, someone who the other characters continually refer to in a semi-reverent tone, but when he does appear on screen he mainly mopes, stares fixedly into the middle distance and only occasionally bursts into a misanthropic rant. The best of these is blasted out at a pair of environmental activists who come to House 475 smiling and bearing animal rights pamphlets. A little more of this fire from Seiji would make his character's hyper-dramatic conclusion make sense. Instead he ends up being an unsatisfying Christ or Bodhisattva-like character who, as the other characters in the film say, "can't feel joy as long as there are people suffering around him."

Still, there are sequences in "Fish on Land" where the imagery and the sound and music combine perfectly. A scene in which Masahiko Tsugawa's blind grandfather has a picture collaged by his granddaughter with an accompanying audio tape is a brilliant bit of filmmaking, especially due to the fact that it shifts so suddenly from domestic whimsy to horrible tragedy. This horrible event, though, comes from so far out of left field that one almost feels that it fell into "Fish on Land" from an entirely other film. It's just another example of how the complex fast forward and rewind style of the narrative outpaces and scrambles the best parts of the film. It's obvious that Yusuke Iseya has some impressive filmmaking skill at his disposal. Combining this with yet another solid ensemble cast and, most importantly, a top notch script and he could easily launch himself into the same cinematic territory as his mentor Koreeda. The key to this progression though will be to keep things simple. Mood and complex narrative structures are great when done right, but even for the talented Iseya, there is something to the old adage of learning to walk before you can run.

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