When I think of punk, I think fast, cheap, amateur, messy. It’s a chaotic genre, usually delivered in short, aggressive bursts of unchecked youthful id. That’s why I’m a little shocked by how belabored & sluggish the 2009 punk film Fish Story can feel. A fractured anthology film about how a punk song improbably saves the world from a near-future apocalypse, Fish Story is weirdly patient & calm. It’s guided by erratic indulgences in horror, action, and sci-fi genre tropes, but they’re all collected in a low-key, overlong journey through time – loosely sketching out the ways an unpopular, largely forgotten punk song can change the world if it falls into the right hands at the right moment. Its pacing & story structure feel more befitting of a prog rock concept album than a punk-single 45.
In the not-too-distant future of 2012, an aloof record store owner rattles off obscure punk trivia to his few scraggly customers while a giant meteor outside the window threatens to destroy the entire planet in mere hours. His fixation on the obscure punk single “Fish Story” (which plays at least a dozen times throughout the film) turns out to be more relevant to Earth’s impending doom than the record store burnouts could possibly imagine. The movie splits its time between seemingly unconnected characters in the decades since that single’s recording in 1975. We meet nerdy record collectors on a sleazy road trip in 1982, a Nostradamus-worshipping death cult awaiting the apocalypse in 1999, a martial-artist “champion of justice” thwarting terrorists in 2009, as well as the band who recorded the song that improbably connects them all (and the post-WWII author who directly inspired its lyrics). It’s all very sprawling & complicated and in no rush to connect its disparate dots until the very last minute before the meteor is supposed to strike.
If I had to guess why Fish Story feels so bogged down by its sprawling narrative, it’s because it’s adapted from a novel. This feels like the kind of adaptation that chose to keep Everything from its source material rather than thoughtfully translating it to the more expedient, visual qualities of its new medium. It does admittedly tie all its loose-end timelines together in a satisfying way with an uncharacteristically concise, powerful ending, but that only amounts to about five minutes of relief after two hours of mediocre build-up. To be honest, the film works best as an advertisement for it source material. I can totally see how its everything-is-connected story structure and pop-culture-obsessive references to media like Power Rangers, Gundam, Under Siege, and Armageddon would be a blast to read on the page, even as they feel a little too weighed down on the screen. The movie itself is fine, I guess, but I can’t imagine ever watching it again when much punchier Japanese punk films like Wild Zero & We Are Little Zombies are sitting right there.