The Fish Tale (2022) review [Fantasia Film Festival]

Introduction

Shuichi Okita (A Story of Yonosuke (2003), One Summer Story (2021)) has some experience in bringing novels to the silver screen. Yet, to bring an autobiography to life on the cinematic screen is a different challenge. Together with Shiro Maeda, the screenwriter, Okita decided to be creative and rather than to faithfully adapt Sakana Kun No Ichi Sakana Ichi Kai: Mainichi Muchuna Jinsei, to creatively stage the truth of the life story of Sakana-kun, a celebrity ichthyologist and holder of an honorary doctorate.

Review

Mibou (-) is, as an elementary students, ‘obsessed’ with fish. He does not only visit the aquarium once a week, but he also draws them and eats them every day. One day, she starts talking to Mr. Fish Head (Sakana-kun), a strange guy who wanders around a bridge with a fish-head cap. They hit it off due to their common love for fish. Yet, when he talks about visit his house over dinner her father promptly forbids her. Yet, her mother grants him his wish.

Some years later, Mibou (Non), now a high-school student, accidently befriends the leader of a local gang. They soon start fishing and walking horseshoe crabs together, yet on the turf of a rival gang led by Momiyama or Razor Blade Momi (Amane Okayama). A fight ensues, but soon, due to Mibou defeating her child-hood friend Hiyoshi or Mad Dog (Yuya Yagira), both gangs find themselves working together to catch a Bigfin Reef Squid. After high school, he starts living alone and tries to work at a local aquarium.  

The Fish Tale (2022) by Shuichi Okita

The Fish Tale offers a peaceful and light-hearted exploration of those moments that were important in allowing Japanese celebrity ichthyologist Sakana-kun to realize a position within the Japanese societal fabric. Okita’s narrative, in fact, beautifully shows that there are other ways that the ‘neurotic’ way to inscribe oneself in social reality.

The childhood sequence of The Fish Tale, for that matter, does not merely touch uponthe fact thatMibou did not fit well within the social fabric (e.g. he does not understand when he is made fun off), but that the signifier fish played a crucial role in allowing him to inscribe himself, in his own particular way, into the social fabric and to give a logic to his subjective functioning. Such inscription lies, as the Japanese title of the narrative – Sakano no Ko – and the peculiar casting choice beautifully implies, beyond gender whatsoever (Language note 1).  

The parental conflict concerning how to deal with Mibou’s peculiar nature is function of a clash between the father’s desire to force his son into neurotic normality and his mother’s support of how he wants to write his subjective path. The father, in fact, fails to see how fish, as signifier, is his solution, his unique way of knotting the registers of the real, imaginary, and the symbolic together – it is a sinthome.

The Fish Tale (2022) by Shuichi Okita

The sinthomatic nature of fish implies that the father, who aims to function as the representative of neurotic societal common sense, is expelled from his symbolic function – his signifiers have little to no effect on the direction of his desire and the nature of his interest (Psycho-note 1). Of course, it is not sure that the mother fully understands the radical importance of the signifier fish, yet she unconditionally supports her son’s radical interest in maritime wildlife. Her school environment, Mr Fish-head, and the friends she makes along the way, for that matter, also play a not unimportant role in approving his sinthomatic solution. Yet, the installation of this subjective solution does not mean that all the challenges he faces in his search to find a place to function within the societal field are resolved. Given the challenges society pose for him, e.g. meeting societal expectations at work, can he carve out his own path and become the fish expert he wants to be? And how will, as the travels his own winding path full of encounters, his peculiar presence affect other people?

The Fish Tale is full of light-hearted elements (Music-note 1). Yet, what is most effective in giving the narrative its charming feel-good atmosphere is the interactional dynamic between Mibou and others. All his interactions are, in a certain sense, marked by his inability to read between the lines (e.g. he remains oblivious to the threatening character of his first encounter with the gang, the difficulties he experiences at her work at the aquarium) and his love for fish. It is, in our view, the elegant staging of his peculiar way of interacting that succeeds in putting a smile on the face of the spectator and keep him engaged – even in those moments where the narrative feels a bit stretched out.  

The Fish Tale (2022) by Shuichi Okita

The composition of The Fish Tale – a mixture of peaceful fluid dynamism, moments of restrained tracking movement, and many static moments – stands out due to its peaceful rhythm – a rhythm fully in support of the slow-flowing unfolding of Mibou’s story. Within his composition, Okita spends enough time to showcase the poetic beauty of maritime wildlife. These moments of visual beauty do not only please the spectator, but also help Mibou’s interest in the world of fish feel genuine.

What ensures the visual pleasure of the composition are the slight yellowish colour-schemes, the natural lightning, and the subtle graininess that marks the visuals. This thoughtful play with these elements does not only allow Okita to give a certain depth and texture to his shot-compositions, but also to mark the unfolding of the narrative with naturalism – a naturalism that does not fail to visually echo the auto-biographical background of the story.

The Fish Tale (2022) by Shuichi Okita

Non delivers a performance that is driven by charm and childlike vitality. Her performance as Mibou/Sakana-kun does not only succeed in charming the spectator, but also gives the interactions he has with others the power to keep the spectator engaged with Sakana-kun’s (creatively interpreted) life story. The same is true for the performance of the child who portrays Mibou as an elementary school student. Her performance does not only give his interest in maritime wildlife its charming innocence, but also its dash of genuineness.

The Fish Tale is a very heart-warming and touching narrative that shows that a subject does not necessarily need to make use of the neurotic solution to inscribe himself within the societal fabric. While the narrative might feel a bit too stretched-out at times, the endearing performance of Non ensures that the spectator remains engaged with the exploration of Mibou’s struggles, his desires, and the happiness he ultimately finds.

Notes

Language-note 1: In fact, Sakano no ko constitutes a playful take on the words otoko no ko (boy) and onna no ko (girl). Such language play affirms that rather than accepting the oedipal solution of becoming girl or boy, Mibou utilizes the signifier ‘fish’ to anchor her subjectivity.

The opening statement of the narrative echoes this: A girl or a boy, it doesn’t matter. Or, put somewhat differently, for Mibou being a boy or girl does not matter. As a result, matters of romance and sexuality also do not matter.  

Psycho-note 1: To put is somewhat in a cheeky way, what works for her is not the Name-Of-The-Father but the Name-Of-The-Fish.

Music-note 1: The light-hearted mood of the narrative is also echoed by the musical accompaniment.  

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