Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review - Fish Story (Fisshu sutôrî)

If you believe everything you see in the movies, 2012 is the end of the road for humanity. Last year, Roland Emmerich bombastically destroyed the world on that date, and now Fish Story predicts an equally bleak fate for us in just two years. This time, however, at least we have an obscure Japanese punk song from the 70's to save us all. Yoshihiro Nakamura's film spans multiple decades in less than two hours, giving us an apocalypse soon and finally spinning backwards to reveal the truth of its story, which has its roots in a book published in the 1950's. Near the end of the film, a character explains the meaning of the title, describing a "fish story" as a tall or exaggerated tale, and the picture has certainly earned that accolade. This shaggy-dog story is a good deal shaggier than most.

Where to begin with this most convoluted narrative? Nakamura opens in 2012, in an eerily deserted Tokyo, with its inhabitants having fled the city as a meteor looms high in the sky. With just hours left until impact, three men take refuge in a record shop and begin discussing the work of a little-known band called Gekirin who apparently invented punk a year before The Sex Pistols were formed, before they quickly disappeared from history. Their song Fish Story didn't sell, but in the years afterwards it became a cult item, partly for the cryptic lyrics ("This is the story of my solitude, if my solitude was a fish") and partly for the minute-long silence that occurs where the guitar solo should be; a gap that has been lent a variety of spooky interpretations. In 1982, we see Masashi (Gaku Hamada) being freaked out by the rumour that a woman's scream can be heard in the silence, and later being told that he has a future part to play in the world's salvation. In 1999, we see two of Masashi's fellow students waiting on the beach for the end of the world as predicted by Nostradamus. In 2009, we see schoolgirl Asami (Mikako Tabe) fall asleep on a ferry and wake up in the midst of a terrorist hijack, and Gekirin's Fish Story provides a constant soundtrack to this seemingly unconnected weirdness.

In the end, we find out that everything is connected, but Nakamura keeps the truth under wraps right up to the finish, and for a long time we just have to submit to Fish Story's momentum, trusting that the director knows what he's doing. He makes it easy for us to have that trust by directing with real confidence and verve. The camerawork and editing has a lively snap to it, and his staging is frequently witty, not least in the excellent sequence on board the hijacked ferry, when a waiter with ninja skills (Mirai Moriyama) is called upon to save the day. While it may appear at times that Nakamura is simply throwing everything he's got into the mix, Fish Story is actually crafted in an impressively coherent fashion, with the frequent shifts between time periods being handled gracefully, and the director only allows us to be as confused as he wants us to be. Tamio Hayashi's screenplay – an adaptation of Kotaro Isaka's novel – is peppered with smart dialogue and eclectic cultural references and the unexpected twists kept me gripped and entertained for at least an hour.

After that point, Fish Story began to grind its gears a little. The longest section of the movie (at least, it feels that way) takes place towards the end and explains the meaning behind that mysterious minute of silence on Gekirin's final record. Unfortunately, the travails of the band, whose members are easily the least interesting on display, have now dramatic weight, and this portion of the film feels baggy and self-indulgent. Even more disappointingly, the truth of the silence, when it is unveiled, is a desperately mundane and underwhelming one. It's a letdown, sure, but it's not enough to cripple the movie, not when Nakamura draws so many fine performances from his actors in the other strands of the film, and the director still has an ace up his sleeve that manages to rescue his film from a flat climax. In the final scenes, Nakamura and Hayashi reveal how every character and every unusual event in this bizarre film was connected, creating a dazzlingly inventive butterfly effect that's both impressive and charming. It takes a long and winding road to get there, but right at the last moment, Nakamura's tall tale finally won me over.