Netflix Instant Files: Fish Story

fish story band performance

“The story of my solitude, if my solitude were a fish/ It’d be so enormous, so militant, a whale would get out of there … The story of my failure, if my failure were a fish / It’d be so tragically comic, I’d have no place in the sea to be.”  These are the nonsense lyrics put to song in 1975 that will save the world in 2012.  At least, that’s how it happens in Fish Story, a 2009 Japanese film available on Netflix Instant.

Fish Story is a very strange, but very entertaining film.  For most of the movie I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, at least insofar as how all of the events happening related to the overall plot.  It didn’t matter, and not because I thought I was watching some twisty-turn mystery of a film like Memento, but because I trusted the film would draw it all together in the end.  It did, and besides, each story was fun, so I didn’t really care if it wasn’t clear most of the time what, precisely, was going on.  The movie plays with the idea of plot twists, but does so in a way that sidesteps the “one big twist at the end” formula.

Fish Story is also not Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  The music of the punk band that releases “Fish Story” in 1975 will not inspire world peace in the future.  It will save the world from a cosmic threat.  In 2012, a meteor is headed toward Earth.  It will collide into the ocean off the coast of Argentina, creating an impact so devastating that countries around the world will feel it.

end of the world soundtrack

Choosing the soundtrack to the end of the world.
(Photo credit: Third Window Films)

Tokyo is abandoned.  Its residents have fled to Mount Fuji, where they hope they will be high enough to survive the tidal wave that will overtake the city.  It’s wishful thinking.  A few have stayed in the city, choosing to spend their last moments in peace and comfort.  Two of these have congregated in a record store, where they listen to “Fish Story.”

That’s our first setting.  The movie takes place in four others, in 1975, 1982, 1999, and 2009.  In 1975, a revolutionary punk band plays music that will predate the international debut of the Sex Pistols by a few scant months.  Unfortunately for them, they’ve hit on the sound too early for the general tastes of their country.  They record one song, “Fish Story,” before dissolving.

Years later, their album has gained notoriety only for the eerie one-minute silence in the middle of the song.  In 1982, a group of college students play it in the car on the way to meet a group of girls.  They believe the tape is haunted: if you listen to the silence, you can hear a woman’s scream.

Over ten years later, two of these friends meet up at a spiritual retreat.  They don’t remember much from that night in their college youth, but they remember that one of the girls believed she had the power to see the future.  She prophesied that one of the men she met that night would save the world.  That’s why they’ve sought out this cult leader, who claims his reading of ancient texts reveals that the world is going to end that evening.

Jump to 2009, when a high school student on a school trip gets stuck on a ferry.  The ship is hijacked by the same cult from ten years before, still convinced it knows the truth of the end of the world.  She and the other guests aboard the ship are saved by the crew’s pastry chef, who’s been training all of his life for just such a moment.

What can I say, karate master pastry chefs are awesome. (Photo credit: Third Window Films)

Karate master pastry chefs are awesome.
(Photo credit: Third Window Films)

That last story seems a little hokey, but it and the story of the punk band are actually the most poignant.  That’s because the ferry story focuses more on the connection made between the school girl and the pastry chef; it’s not precisely romantic, just about two people who meet and connect under unusual circumstances.  Or maybe I’m just partial to this particular story because it contains shots of delicious pastry and awesome martial arts; what can I say, my affections are easily bought.

Affection is the reason why the 1975 story is my other favorite.  It starts out in typical punk rock fashion: the boys are playing at a club, they’re reprimanded for their fast music, they play it anyway, and a fight breaks out.  But as the story, which is the longest in the film, continues, we see the true affection that the boys have for each other, and for their music.  They record “Fish Story” knowing it’s going to be the only track they’ll lay down, and the last time they’ll all play together, but they persist anyway.  It’s sweet, it’s the true heart of the movie, and thus it’s appropriate that most of the 1975 scenes come in the middle of the film.

What I like the most about Fish Story, aside from just how fun all of the shorts are, is how it plays with the “one true hero” trope.  We hear early on in the film of a future savior, someone destined to prevent the world’s destruction.  That immediately has us thinking of one figure, probably one who will emerge from humble roots, who will be imbued by genetics or skills or fate with the necessary tools to save the world.

Instead, in Fish Story, it’s not as clear cut as that.  It’s hard to pinpoint one savior, because each character plays their role.  In a movie that’s mostly strange and at times even goofy, that’s rather realistic.  No one character is elevated above the others, though some of course stand out more, either due to acting or to the greater appeal of their story.  All the characters, even those we find annoying, have their own unwitting role to play in preventing the Earth’s destruction.

fish story 1982

Do we all have our own random part to play?
(Photo credit: Third Window Films)

In many ways, then, it’s a study of life.  Do the little things we do play a part in some grander scheme that might not come to fruition for decades?  Could the moments that are monumental to us, though seemingly inconsequential to others, actually do something as grand as saving the world?  Are we all connected in some way, even if none but the universe will recognize that connection?

These are all just questions that the script allows viewers to ponder, but that aren’t really examined in the movie.  There are three kinds of movies: those that just tell shallow stories, those that just tell stories, but stories open for interpretation or for picking apart by viewers, and those that actively reach out to the viewer and explore questions along with them.  The middle not might be as grand as the last, but it can often be more fun, and that’s what Fish Story is.

It’s something different.  It’s an unpredictable film that can just be watched and enjoyed, but that can also be pried apart for greater meaning if the viewer chooses.  When it was over, I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d just watched, but I knew that I’d enjoyed the ride.  Now Fish Story is one of my favorite movies that I discovered thanks to Netflix Instant.