Fish Story represents an evolution in a problem I feel is becoming more prevalent in movies, which is that directors have an idea but not a story. An idea is enough to begin a film, but unless you have a story, you don't have a driving force, and often no beginning, middle, or end, resulting in too many films that have plenty of great moments reinforcing or playing off of the idea, and a bunch of filler surrounding those moments, all leading towards a less-than-satisfying conclusion that's not so much a resolution as it is a stopping point. Fish Story trumps those films in that the resolution of the story may be its most satisfying aspect, but there's an inherent disconnect in the structure of the film and the way it builds to its finale that hurt it more than help it.
The film takes place in 2012, five hours before a giant comet will crash into Earth and wipe out the human race, and flashes back to 1975, 1982, 1999, and 2009 to fill in crucial blanks. The lynchpin of the stories is a song called "Fish Story," which a record store owner in 2012 (Nao Omori) is convinced is the secret to survival. "Champions of justice will save humanity," he says calmly, putting on the record for the shop's one increasingly frantic customer (Kenichi Takito), and the pessimistic old man who's wandered in off the street to warn them of the impending crisis (Kenjiro Ishimaru). "This song will save the day." Over the course of the four flashback sequences, we are introduced to the band who recorded the song (Atsushi Ito, Kengo Kora, Toshimitsu Okawa, and Kiyohiko Shibukawa), concerned more then with creative differences with their record company and the likelihood that the band is about to break up; to Kentaro (Takashi Yamanaka), Satoru (Kazuki Namioka) and Masashi (Gaku Hamada), who are off to meet Haruko (Mai Takahashi) and some other girls for drinks; and to Masami (Mikako Tabe), a schoolgirl who falls asleep on a boat and meets a justice-minded chef (MIrai Moriyama) and ends up in the middle of a hijacking.
Without spoiling the film, the joy of Fish Story is the resolution, executed by director Yoshihiro Nakamura like a bit of cinematic sleight of hand, producing something from what appeared to be nothing at the last minute. Nakamura's direction within each of these segments is also effective, creating a palpable bit of horror movie tension in 1982 when Kentaro, Satoru and Masashi listen to "cursed" cassette tapes, or a bit of romantic tension and action thrills between Satoru and Masashi in 2009 when the hijackers make their move. The longest segment, 1975, drags a little in dealing with the band's internal struggles, but there's a nice dry humor and wistfulness to the way the band bembers, accompanied by their manager (Omori again), quietly work together on an artistic swan song.
At the same time, however, Nakamura's magic trick is still a trick: in telling a story that purposefully stays out of focus for much of the runtime, Fish Story becomes a film that is less about the people in it and more about a series of moments or events. Slight focus is given to a few characters, but none of them really register as protagonists, and even the ones that get the closest are abandoned on the verge before the film is onto something else. The film was adapted from a novel by Kotaro Isaka, and it seems possible that a multi-story structure would've worked better in a book, where the reader is allowed more insight into each character than the film is able to encompass.
All things considered, Fish Story is a double-edged sword. Despite a heavy helping of invention and inspiration, I found that the the empty core of the film left something to be desired, and that I may have felt more strongly about what the movie was lacking than what it had to offer. I am reminded of the quote by Gertrude Stein: "There is no there there."
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