Sound & Colour: Kazuyoshi Saito and Yoshihiro Nakamura’s ‘Fish Story’
If there is anything that physicists and creatives have in common, it’s with how both struggle with the thought experiment: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I think it’s a question that is particularly stinging for creatives (and content writers). What is the point of pouring all the effort in the world into a film, an album or even a web article that nobody will experience?
There is some truth in the maxim that everything will work out as long as there is passion and drive. Yet, surely, for every Bukowski finally making it big after decades of toiling, there are a million not-so-success stories where passion never amounted to anything substantive.
Through its tale of peculiar and implausible coincidences, Yoshihiro Nakamura’s little-known 2009 film Fish Story フィッシュストーリー playfully addresses artists’ fears of never being heard, while infusing hope into our sometimes nihilistic view of life.
It’s 2012. There’s a asteroid headed for earth. John Cusack and Bruce Willis are nowhere to be seen. Everybody’s going to die – unless an obscure punk song that has traversed through the decades has already set off a chain of events that could potentially prevent the end of the world.
While it’s not exactly the end times (yet), it has definitely felt like it. The pandemic has brought an omnipresent air of hopelessness and fatigue, exerting its immense weight onto the worries of creatives. Many are also at the crossroads of their careers, having to give up their creative pursuits for some semblance of financial stability.
It’s in these bittersweet emotions that the film revels in, implanting some faith that what we have already put out into the world – however small and seemingly insignificant – will ripple on in wildly unexpected ways.
Besides, what better way to rebel against life’s seemingly unsurpassable challenges than with a raucous punk song soundtracking it all?
The Music – Kazuyoshi Saito’s “Fish Story”
Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kazuyoshi Saito is a well-known name in Japanese music with an immense discography of hits. Making his debut in 1993, he has become a staple of the Japanese festival circuit and of charity concerts while providing music for television programmes and films.
His tunes cover a wide spectrum of genres, mainly focusing on folk with the occasional dabbling into rock. For Fish Story, he presents both a soothing summer jam for the credit sequence, and an absolute banger with the eponymous track. It’s performed by the film’s fictional band Gekirin, presumably the world’s first punk outfit formed in 1975 predating the Sex Pistols, who – depending on who you ask – were the ones who pioneered the whole movement (nah, it’s the New York Dolls).
It’s perhaps intentional that “Fish Story” sounds a lot like The Damned’s “New Rose”, credited as the first punk single released in the UK a year before the Sex Pistols hit the scene. While it’s a terrific earworm that nails the style of the era, my only nitpick would be that it sounds a little too good with its modern production.
Still, this does give it a significant pop edge without the usual harshness of the genre. Kora Kengo, who plays the fictional band’s frontman Goro, embodies rebellion as he brashly bellows along with the track’s driving guitars and head-rocking drums. Throw in a riotous guitar solo in the middle with the easy sing-alongs of “oh”s and it might not be so hard to imagine that this could soundtrack the end of the world.
Whenever anyone mentions asteroids, I am immediately haunted by Aerosmith’s ear-grating sell-out hit “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” for 1998’s Armegeddon. This, despite, being a huge fan of Fish Story. This may be because the Japanese film is hardly concerned about the rock in the sky, and instead uses it as a device to assuage the ever-present fears of creatives.
Punk’s innate energy makes it a solid fit for a film about humanity’s rebellion against their seemingly unavoidable fate. However, I feel that Fish Story’s use of the genre is much more nuanced than just a simple borrowing of aesthetics.
In my opinion, despite its tough exterior, punk is actually a really dorky genre (which is probably why I tend to gravitate towards it). Some early punk bands are notorious for their lack of musicality, mainly letting their personas do the talking on stage. Others are influenced from the relatively obscure genres of their time, most notably with The Clash and reggae. These, to me, made the genre apt for an off-beat Japanese comedy about implausible coincidences.
Enlisting the help of a genre-spanning musician, director Nakamura takes full advantage of being able to construct a punk song from the ground up. The titular track pays homage to the very first punk single, while infusing its familiar riff with an infectious do-or-die spirit that complements the movie’s decade-spanning collection of short stories.
The Sequence in Question
This series of articles is usually dedicated to highlighting certain scenes that are perfectly complemented by their backing soundtracks. “Fish Story” is a rare example of a song encapsulating an entire film’s mood and theme. Of course, this is helped by how most of the film is dedicated to developing the mystique behind the track.
A meteor is headed straight to earth and most of Tokyo has been evacuated – except for a lone record store with its owner, a customer, and a cult leader. Each has their own reasons for staying. The cult leader, who predicted the world’s end years ago, has been borrowing an obscene amount of money knowing that he will probably not have to pay it back anyway.
The store owner, however, is mysteriously convinced that a punk song will save the world. He puts the record on the turntable and reveals its various quirks, such as its nonsensical lyrics and a minute of silence just as the guitar solo kicks in.
I won’t reveal how “Fish Story” ultimately has to do with a meteor in the sky. However, I do want to talk about the film’s main message with the cult song’s backstory. Set in 1975, Geikirin struggles with a world that just doesn’t understand their art. Popular music in the period was dominated by the easy-going jazz-inspired sounds of the Enka genre – a far cry from the unrefined nature of rock. Even after they were signed to a label, they are forced to slow their music down into soft ballads.
Still, the label and the band’s manager Okazaki (Omori Nao) are convinced that their records won’t sell. The band is left with the resources to record one last track before being let go. The band’s guitarist Shigeki (Ito Atsushi) chances upon a book titled Fish Story in Okazaki’s home. He is mesmerised by its cacophony of babble and how it compares a wide range of emotion to a fish. Passing it off as deep, he decides to turn its passages into the lyrics of the band’s final song.
Given only one take, the recording of the titular song plays out like their Hail Mary. However, this is ruined when Goro goes on an uncharacteristically sentimental rant during the song’s guitar solo. The label producer wants a re-recording, but Okazaki decides it’s better to replace that part with silence, reasoning that “the record won’t sell anyway”.
Shortly afterwards, the band and their manager presumably gather one last time over drinks before dispersing on their separate ways. It’s a poignant scene that is probably familiar to those forced to give up their passions for desk jobs.
Okazaki reveals that the book Shigeki picked up is actually a botched translation of a English story; its words hardly mean anything at all. Nevertheless, all of them – after a few drinks – start to come up with similarly absurd situations and reasons for how their song could reach another generation and change the world, even if it will never reach theirs.
Somehow, they were right.
Bringing It All Back Home
Fish Story is one of my all-time favourite films, with its exceptionally fun and brilliantly life-affirming tale only growing more affecting as time goes by. How it sports an excellent leading track that perfectly pairs with the film’s themes is only the icing on the cake.
As a music fan, the film embodies most of the fun that comes with being one, with tropes that are not so divorced from its world-ending premise. Bands ahead of their time like the fictional Gekirin are a dime a dozen in our world. A common description of The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut is that while it only sold 30,000 copies in its early years, everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.
Much like “Fish Story”, music is filled with instances of songs morphing into urban legends from hearsay. Perhaps the most popular comes with the theory that Paul McCartney of The Beatles died in the 1960s and was replaced with a look-alike. One of the strongest evidence is with “I buried Paul” being heard on the tail-end of their song “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
“Fish Story” being strings of lyrical nonsense that could bring the world together isn’t too far off from reality as well. The Gallagher brothers became superstars singing about nothing (what’s a wonderwall anyway?) yet that hardly matters. Their most enduring hit, “Don’t Look Back In Anger”, became Manchester’s unofficial anthem after the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, uniting the city at its lowest point. This despite, to paraphrase Noel, “nobody knowing who Sally is”.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, all these point to a certain magic that, while present throughout art, is perhaps most expressed in music. Even the most innocuous and presumably unimpressive works of art – even if they are just a bunch of gibberish – can take on a life of their own beyond the artist’s. Even the most mundane everyday events can float on to become something that could change the world.
The film perfectly captures this spirit especially with its titular song. It gets ridiculous with how it links together a chain of unlikely events – I feel that it’s this same absurd approach to life that we sorely need right now. With absurdity comes hope. Even if nobody hears a tree fall in the forest, it could still be found one day.
For creatives forced to abandon their endeavours, their already completed works could always live on and grow. Even if a song, film, work of art or article might not be seen by many or save the world, it could still make the life of just one person a little better.
And perhaps it is with those hopes that might just be enough to push on.
Unfortunately, it will be quite a journey to catch Fish Story, with the film primarily available on Japan’s Amazon Prime. However, there is hope for a wide release, with a Blu-ray release planned for 10 August. Do keep an eye out for the Japanese film!
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