One song can save the world.
At least, that’s the thesis statement of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story, a film in which an obscure punk rock single inspired by a shittily-translated book sparks a chain reaction that literally prevents mankind’s certain destruction.
The story opens in 2012. A sickly man maneuvers his electric wheelchair around the abandoned cars and bicycles cluttering the trash-strewn streets. Above him, a meteor blazes a fiery trail across the sky, a mere five hours away from wiping out all life on Earth. Suddenly, the faint echo of music breaks the eerie silence. He follows the noise to what appears to be the only shop still open on mankind’s last day: a record store. Leaning on his cane, the man hobbles inside to find a clerk and a lone customer, shooting the breeze and going about business as usual—clearly in denial.
This narrative frame functions much like the one in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The sick man plays the part of the cynical Commoner; in fact, he welcomes the impending cataclysm, claiming he predicted it years ago. A simple procedure would have cured the disease ravaging his body, he says, but he instead chose to live a life of excess, for he knew he’d survive long enough to see humanity’s final hour. The customer takes the role of the Priest: stubbornly hopeful, but teetering on the edge of despair. A team of astronauts has been dispatched to detonate the explosives left on the asteroid by an earlier (failed) expedition—surely they can finish the job before it’s too late! Like the Woodcutter, the clerk acts as a sort of mediator between these extremes. As the three men await their doom or salvation, they listen to “Fish Story,” the only song produced by Gekirin, a punk rock group ahead of its time.
From there, the film hopscotches between decades to unravel this enigma of a song, which somehow holds the key to Earth’s survival. In 1982, a timid college student listens to a bootleg recording of “Fish Story” as he navigates a dark, lonely stretch of highway. At the precise moment the tape reaches the song’s infamous “minute of silence” (the subject of numerous urban legends), a woman cries out for help. The student, finally overcoming his fear, helps the woman overpower her attacker. This chance encounter gives him enough confidence to start a family, and he raises his son to defend the weak as a “Champion of Justice.” In 2009, the boy puts his upbringing to good use when insane cultists commandeer his ferry. One of the passengers he rescues—a schoolgirl who missed her stop—happens to be a mathematical prodigy. In 2012, she becomes an indispensable member of the crew sent to detonate the bombs on the asteroid.
And this unlikely series of connections was only possible because a frustrated punk rocker in the ‘70s cribbed some lyrics from an atrociously mistranslated novel.
To summarize, Fish Story is thematically rich, stylistically immaculate, and unapologetically weird—in other words, everything I love about Japanese cinema.
[Originally written February 7, 2012.]