Yukinori Makabe has of yet a very limited oeuvre – some dramas for television and two feature films, one about becoming a monk (I Am Monk (2015)) and one about bouldering (Last Hold (2018)). For his third feature film, he teams up with screenwriter Atsumi Tsuchi to deliver a live-action version of Noriko Otani’s manga Sukutte Goran (2014-2105).
Makoto Kashiba (Matsuya Onoe), a demoted and rather emotionally restrained bank clerk is sent to the countryside after making an irreparable mistake at the head office in Tokyo. The first day in his new rural environment, his attention is grasped by a kimono-wearing woman. Attracted by her nape, he follows her and arrives at Kotoya, the gold-fish scooping ‘palace’ the young lady called the rather shy but attractive Yoshino (Kanako Momota) owns.
Love, Live, and Goldfish might be telling a rather straightforward story about falling in love, but the narrative’s context is, far more than other romance narratives, distinctly Japanese. And we are not only talking about goldfish scooping, a popular activity during summer festivals, or the patriarchal tradition of old-fashioned banks to punish worker by sending them to far-away rural areas. How Kashiba falls in love with Yoshino can also be called distinctly Japanese.
What attracts Kashiba in Yoshino is her nape, which is accentuated by her kimono. Why does this little piece of nudity seduce him? To answer this question, we need to invoke two elements of the aesthetic known as Iki. The first aspect in play is bitai (allure), a restrained flirty eroticism. The accentuation of her nape acts, within this aesthetic tradition, as an erotic sign, an enticing invitation to visually enjoy the beauty of the back of the neck. The second element in play is akanuke (urbanity), an unassuming stylishness. This woman is – and this is very important – unaware of her stylish erotic impact, unaware that she, by wearing a stylish kimono that accentuates her nape, becomes seductive for certain men like Kashiba. The nape, a piece of flesh highly eroticized within Japanese culture, function as an indirect attempt to ensnare male desire, to force male subjects to assume that this woman possess something of the phallus. The second time Kashiba observes her, while she is playing piano, is defined by the same two elements, bitai and akanuke. The sequence is pregnant of a certain eroticism that is function of her not realizing how beautiful and erotically refined she is while playing the piano.
Another element, an element also ingrained in Japanese society, concerns the very attractiveness of Kashiba’s position for certain female subjects. For such female others, like Asuka Yamazoe (Nicole Ishida), Kashiba is not attractive because of his personality or his bodily attractiveness, but because he holds, as an elite banker, the unrealized promise of giving the female subject the life she silently dreams off. This dreamed-off life, a not so uncommon female Japanese fantasy, is a life where the female subject can indulge in and control all the riches of her husband. For Yamazoe, this urban fantasy is so alluring because of the ‘unsatisfactory’ state of her current rural life.
While Kashiba has a certain virility and inclination to understand certain signifiers of the female other as a sexual/erotic invitation, he is emotionally restrained – this restraint forms another element that has a distinctly Japanese flavour. He lacks, due to his upbringing and Japanese social environment, the ability to express his emotions and desires in a direct way. He hides, in a certain way, his own subjectivity behind the excess of financial numbers. In other words, his indulgence in financial numbers, i.e. his work, is to silence his subjectivity as well as to avoid bringing his subjectivity and emotionality into play in social interactions. Yet, such bottling up of emotions or opinion, as is shown in a flashback explaining Kashiba’s fatal mistake in Tokyo, can lead to a quick loss of control, an uncontrolled emotional burst of saying crudely that what cannot be said within a social environment.
The second time he loses control of his emotions is when he, standing next to Yoshino, calls her ‘cute’. This uncontrolled expression, rather than being a mistake out of frustration, is a signifier signaling his desire/romantic interest, something he was trying to keep for himself. Rather than his ego speaking, it is his subject that lets itself be known in this sudden slip (Narra-note 1). Even though this slip forms the start of the process to accept his romantic feelings for her, he remains unable to express his romantic interest in a direct and inviting manner to her. Will he remain unable to let his desire speak, or will he succeed in finding a way to formulate his romantic desire in a more direct way and allow her to overcome the sadness and the subjective inhibition that hinders her?
The composition of Love, Live, and Goldfish is straightforward – a static affair with only subtle dynamism thrown into the mix. Yet, Makabe’s narrative has a very pleasing colour- and lighting design. The atmosphere of the narrative has a subtle vibrance due to a thoughtful play with the contrast. There are, furthermore, some visually pleasing decorative sequences. While in many cases such decorations would disturb the flow of the composition, the decorations in Love, Live, and Goldfish enhance the lighthearted mood of the narrative.
Makabe also effectively utilizes the non-diegetic voice – Kashiba’s voice addressing some of his thoughts, thoughts providing some narrative context for his current situation, and his rules of life to the spectator. An additional effect of the use of such vocalized ‘mental’ voice is that, by emphasizing some of his subjectivity, this voice strengthens/accentuates the corporal expressions of said subjectivity. The subtle interaction between this ‘mental voice’ and the corporal expressions is one source that infuses lightheartedness into the narrative. The signifiers that appear on-screen, signifiers that accompany the vocalization of his inner discourse, as well as the pleasant over-acting by Matsuya Onoe further emphasize the lighthearted nature of the narrative.
The musical sequences, so fluently integrated into the unfolding of the narrative, are a different manner by which Makabe let its characters express some of their subjectivity. These musical sequences are utter lighthearted delights. The musical pieces are catchy and the lyrics succeed in highlighting something of the subjective position of our characters (e.g. Kashiba, Yamazoe) emphasize the subjective differences or similarities between him and others in an enjoyable and comical way. Other musical accompaniment is subtle, but effective in infusing a lighthearted or romantic atmosphere into the scene or in subtly evoking the emotional state of our main character.
Love, Live, and Goldfish is an amazing narrative that explores elements marking contemporary Japanese society (e.g. the difficulty of expressing oneself, the enduring impact of the aesthetic tradition of Iki, and the female urban dream of wealth, …etc.) in a highly engaging and satisfying way. While Makabe’s narrative does not offer anything truly new or groundbreaking, what it does brings to the table is served with excellence. There is, in other words, not one single false note in this lighthearted musical romance.
Narra-note 1: There are other slips of his thoughts in the narrative as well. As certain points, Kashiba verbalizes, unbeknownst to himself, almost his entire inner monologue for those around him.