Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story is a quirky Japanese comedy, adapted from the novel by Kotoro Isaka, which blends urban legend, martial arts mayhem and post-Millennium tension to engaging and amusing effect. As with the over-hyped Roland Emmerich blockbuster 2012 (2009), Nakamura’s film refers to the Mayan calendar for the date of the end of the world, but the Japanese reaction to the impending apocalypse is not as dramatically overwrought as that of the American mainstream.
As a meteor heads towards Earth, a bitter old man and a more optimistic youngster find themselves in an otherwise empty record store where the proprietor (Nao Omori) plays a record entitled ‘Fish Story’ by the obscure 1970s punk band Gekirin, explaining in a vague yet confident manner that their music has the power ‘to save the day.’ The story then moves to 1982 to focus on Masashi (Gaku Hamada), a shy young man who hears ‘Fish Story’ whilst working as a hired drive, with his passengers discussing the legend that people with ‘psychic connections’ can hear a woman scream during the song’s mysterious silent minute. Masahi’s passengers meet some women in a bar and head for a love hotel, leaving the driver to have a life-changing experience on his ride home. Events then move forward to 2009 as schoolgirl Asami (Tabe Mikako) falls asleep on a school boat trip, failing to disembark the vessel at Tokyo and instead left heading towards Hokkaido, much to her distress. A friendly waiter (Mirai Moriyama) calms her down, informing her that he has been trained to be a ‘champion of justice’, a claim that seems to be rather far-fetched until a gang of heavily-armed hijackers takes over the ship and the waiter springs into action. Nakamura then goes back to 1975 and the recording of ‘Fish Story’ by Gekirin, a band being driven apart by the commercial demands of their producer Okazaki (Nao Omori in a second role). Band songwriter Shigeki (Ito Atsushi) comes across a little-known novel and ‘borrows’ its title and words to create the titular song that will – three decades later – save the world, although these vignettes are only tied together in the film’s closing moments.
With its combination of end-of-the-world panic and pop culture nostalgia, Fish Story occupies two sub-genres; the ‘puzzle’ film and the ‘musical underdog’. The ‘puzzle film’ is best represented by such American independent offerings as Memento (2000) and Primer (2004), although Nakamura’s laid-back approach is more akin to earlier examples like Mystery Train (1989) and Pulp Fiction (1994). The clearly defined chapters allow Nakamura to play affectionately with the popular cinematic lexicon; 1982 is an ‘urban legend’ that gains comic mileage from its horror film set-up, 2009 references the high-concept heroics of Die Hard (1988) and Under Siege (1992) and 1975 offers the struggling band scenario, while the end-of-the-world framework recalls not only the aforementioned 2012 but also other over-blown doomsday blockbusters such as Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddeon (1998).
The ‘musical underdog’ sub-genre has become a staple in Japanese cinema; Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda Linda Linda (2005) follows four schoolgirls who must learn to play a song for a school festival while Ryûichi Honda’s GS Wonderland (2008) chronicles the all-male group phenomenon that swept Japan in the 1960s as record labels sought to emulate the ‘British Invasion’, and Kankurô Kudô’s The Shonen Merikensack (2008) concerns a record company employee who ‘discovers’ a new punk band on the internet, only to discover that their music is actually 25-years-old. Although Fish Story and The Shonen Merikensack both revolve around the punk movement, Nakamura’s film actually has more in common with Tomorowo Taguchi’s hilarious The Shikisoku Generation (aka Oh, My Buddha, 2009), in which a high school student follows in the footsteps of his idol Bob Dylan by infusing his introspective folk songs with the vitality of rock-and-roll. Fish Story and The Shikisoku Generation exhibit a fascination with music lore; the former celebrates the myths that build up around cult recordings and speculates on what the ‘missing link’ between The Velvet Underground and The Sex Pistols would sound like, while the latter references Dylan’s sudden switch from acoustic to electric.
There is something agreeably retro about Fish Story, with its emphasis on old LPs, cassettes with hand-written track listings, and a ‘champion of justice’ whose childhood training regime has been derived from The Karate Kid (1984). The 1975 section effortlessly evokes the underbelly of the alternative scene, with Gekirin performing to unappreciative audiences, living in squalid apartments, and recording in a cramped studio that takes on a tense – but ultimately euphoric – atmosphere as the band plays together for one last time, while the 2012 strand takes place in the kind of collector’s emporium that is increasingly hard to find in the era of chain stores and online ordering. Fish Story is a film of immense charm, a clever comedy that not only taps into the music sub-culture of Japan with warm nostalgia and wry insight, but also a film that scrambles narrative chronology in a manner that reveals itself to be entirely logical and cinematically appropriate.
Fish Story is showing at the ICA from May 28.
John Berra is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan