*UPDATE* Fish Story is currently available on the Netflix DVD service. This might be the only way to see it in the States.
Six years ago you could have watched Fish Story on Netflix streaming, but it’s since disappeared into the digital ether. Two years ago you could have snagged the DVD on Amazon, but now it’s only available on a low-quality region 2 disk.
You cannot stream it on iTunes and boutique distributors — like Arrow or Criterion — have yet to release the gorgeous, loaded-with-features blu-ray that it deserves.
In another two years it might be impossible to watch this punk rock epic at all, unless you’re lucky enough to stumble across an old copy in a secondhand bargain bin or YouTube bootleg.
Which sucks, a lot. It’s a strange instance of life imitating art, given the fact that the movie is about a long-forgotten punk song that no one really cares about.
Until it saves the world.
Fish Story feels like Capra and Tarantino decided to work together just to see what the hell would happen.
It has interwoven storylines across multiple timelines, insane bursts of action and comedy, and an ability to hopscotch across genres without shortchanging a single one (that would be the DNA from daddy Tarantino). It also bursts with soulful optimism and has moments so sweet it could make your teeth rot but goddamn it somehow it gets away with it (that would be mama Capra).
It opens with a quick burst of Japanese campiness: the show Go Ranger, which is basically Power Rangers, except crappier. This happens in a flash and it’s easy to miss, but on a re-watch it was so obvious why director Yoshihiro Nakamura (Dark Water … the good one) and screenwriter Tamio Hayashi chose to start here instead of with the more visually arresting sequence that follows; a sequence that depicts a lone man navigating an electric cart through abandoned city streets, with an imposing comet looming in the sky above.
The movie starts with five silly heroes because it’s a story about how the weird, idiosyncratic, seemingly random quirks in life are just as important as the established norms that breed cynicism … and how heroes often come from the former.
Getting back to that comet, it looms over the story like it looms over Tokyo, serving as an anti-inciting-incident — instead of propelling the story forward it pulls the story toward it the way gravity pulls celestial bodies to the Earth.
That guy on the electric cart? He finds a used music store that’s miraculously open for business just hours before the end of the world.
Inside he finds two men listening to their favorite music before they die, and it’s here we discover this intruding stranger on the cart is a disruptor, as much an agent of chaos as the comet itself. He’s appalled by the behavior of the men in the music store — shouldn’t they be screaming? Running? Weeping? — and sets up camp to slowly undermine the small amount of hope they are clinging to.
The shop owner’s only recourse is to cling to his strange belief that the rare vinyl record he’s spinning — and the weird song it contains — are going to save the world, leading to the long flashbacks which interconnect to prove him right.
None of these ideas are stated by the characters, however. It’s all under the surface, the kind of intuited psychology that comes from the alchemy of great dialog, acting, and camera choices. And to be fare, it could also be this viewer’s interpretation, though I’m not the only one to be deeply moved by the surprising nuance in this movie.
There’s also evidence to support this interpretation because of how the movie failed to connect with a wider audience; despite its sci-fi premise, sly humor, and one utterly fantastic fight sequence which deserves to be ranked among the greats, it’s mostly about characters sitting around and talking. There are no less than seven extended conversations that take up a large chunk of the running time. And while they play like gangbusters I can imagine some audience members wishing for more sci-fi action.
But here’s a theory I like a lot better: Fish Story just came out at the wrong time and it’s going to be rediscovered as the cult hit it truly should be.
It’s a long shot, sure, but possible. Because ten years after its release, Fish Story feels like a fresh, direct, real-time reaction to the year of our Trump, 2018. Which doesn’t mean it’s political, it just means the movie confronts the crushing weight of hopelessness that every sane, normal person feels in the face of chaos. And then it destroys that chaos. Not with platitudes or Oprah-isms or Democratic spam e-mails, but with proof that the impossible is truly possible.
This is a movie for right now. It even feels progressive in 2018, where how we allowed ourselves to behave just ten years ago feels like the damn Dark Ages. Yes, the film clings a little too tightly to gender-specific tropes (saving a girl from rape give new meaning and direction to a guy, for instance) but Fish Story is such a Swiss watch of a tale that anyone “woke” should withhold judgement until the final frames. The complexity of ideas, themes, and thesis are rivaled by the dimension the movie gives to all its characters, even the women who all play (literal) supporting roles within a larger, male-driven story.
From the beginning scene, the filmmakers make it clear that this silly little song is going to save the world, against all odds. It’s no spoiler to tell you that it does, but it’s not until the final moments of the film that you discover the bizarre, circuitous route that pitted a punk b-side against a World Ender.
The song in question contains a minute of mysterious silence right in the middle of a guitar solo. Over the course of the movie characters posit what the silence could mean. Is it censored content? Did a crazy fan storm the recording studio? Or is there some secret meaning that fans were meant to uncover?
Without spoiling it, the answer turns out to be surprisingly simple and emotional. A drunken decision made on a whim between friends, five idiosyncratic weirdos trying to get by in a world that wants them to stop, to give up, even to die. Acting on nothing more than gut instinct, they decide to leave part of their song silent, leading to a long chain of events that save the world.
And in doing so, they become heroes.
Just like the movie itself, just like all art, just like every human being on this planet, the song is a complete accident and a complete miracle at the same time, filled with empathy and dramatic catharsis.
It’s a battle cry masquerading as a ditty.
While it’s tough to find Fish Story in America, it’s not impossible. Find a friend with a copy, buy a region free DVD player, Tweet or e-mail Criterion in hopes they’ll snag the distribution rights.
And who knows. Maybe you’ll help save the world.