It’s the year 2012 and as it turns out, the Mayans were right: Earth is doomed. An asteroid is heading our way, and it seems that nobody, not even the United States, can save us (as their ambitious asteroid-busting mission has failed). But we still have one thing on our side that the Mayans and their “Long Count” didn’t predict: punk rock. And not just any punk rock, mind you, but the very first punk rock song, recorded in Japan a full year before the Sex Pistols burst on to the scene.
That’s the basic set-up for Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story, and though it may seem rather laughable, Nakamura spins it into a charming, gently absurdist tale that spans decades and genres while riffing on everything from Michael Bay movies to J-horror to That Thing You Do!. Indeed, the movie is so understated (its rather far-out premise notwithstanding), that it’s actually quite remarkable when you consider how much Nakamura packs into his film (e.g., pop culture references, thematic and genre shifts).
The movie jumps back and forth between four specific eras, beginning in 2012 where that asteroid is bearing down on Earth. But imminent annihilation hasn’t deterred a clerk from opening his record store for the day. Soon, he and two patrons find themselves in an existential argument regarding the Earth’s fate, and wondering if any heroes will come to save the day. In the midst of this, the clerk puts on an obscure record — the only copy of “Fish Story” by Gekirin, the world’s first punk rock band — and confidently declares that “Fish Story” will save the world.
In 1975, Gekirin is a young band struggling to make ends meet. They want to rage against society with their music, but they’re stuck playing schmaltzy ballads for drunken salarymen. Still, the spirit of punk rock can’t be denied, and with the help of a lowly record company executive, they set out to make their dreams come true. And when they come across a book titled Fish Story, it seems as if Fate itself has taken an interest in their rocking out.
In 1982, several people are discussing paranormal phenomena when one of them reveals the greatest mystery of all: a cassette recording of a punk rock song called “Fish Story” that contains a mysterious minute of silence. Supposedly, those with psychic abilities can hear a woman scream during that silence. After a chance encounter with a psychic woman who makes Nostradamus-like prophecies, one of these people — a meek college student distinguished only by his inability to stand up to bullies — will hear a scream, grow a backbone (of sorts), and nothing will be the same.
In 2009, a schoolgirl is left behind on a ferry while on a school trip. She encounters an enigmatic chef working on the ferry who tells her a secret: ever since childhood, he’s been training to be a “Champion of Justice.” His story seems farfetched, but when a cult seizes the ferry in hopes of using it to ride out an impending apocalypse à la Noah, he may be the only one capable of saving her and the rest of the passengers.
As you might imagine, much of the enjoyment of watching Fish Story comes from trying to figure out just how Nakamura is going to tie these disparate storylines together. There are moments when Fish Story feels more like an anthology film than one cohesive picture, when the storylines seem completely and irrevocably disconnected. However, the individual stories are pretty interesting in and of themselves — being a martial arts fan, I found the 2009 storyline particularly enjoyable — so that even when it’s not at all clear how a particular storyline fits into the overall narrative, it’s still pleasant enough to just sit back and see how it plays out.
The closest companion piece to Fish Story that I can think of is Jang Jun-hwan’s criminally unknown Save the Green Planet!, which also juggles genres and storylines with considerable aplomb. But whereas Save the Green Planet! is ultimately driven by a dark sense of humor and a huge dollop of pathos, Fish Story is warmer and more optimistic in its storytelling, albeit in that gently absurd manner you find elsewhere in Japanese cinema (e.g., The Happiness of the Katakuris, The Taste of Tea, Kamikaze Girls). The film is ultimately an examination of how even seemingly random events are subtly connected in ways that nobody can truly foresee, and how even the most insignificant or arbitrary decision or action can have far-reaching consequences.
Mistranslating a book, rolling down your car window, spending years learning martial arts, writing a punk rock song… any one of these may very well play a crucial role in saving the world.
This article originally appeared on Filmwell on February 18, 2012.