Yusuke Iseya is a rather unusual presence in the Japanese movie scene. After studying filmmaking in New York and finishing a Master’s in Fine Arts in Tokyo, he first worked as model before breaking into the acting world with several high profile roles for internationally renowned auteur Hirokazu Koreeda. Since then he’s gone on to work with many of Japan’s most prominent directors before making his own directorial debut with 2002’s Kakuto. Fish on Land (セイジ -陸の魚-, Seiji – Riku no Sakana), his second feature, is a more wistful effort which belongs to the cinema of memory as an older man looks back on a youthful summer which he claimed to have forgotten yet obviously left quite a deep mark on his still adolescent soul.
The unnamed narrator begins his tale as a disheartened salary man who tells us that his days simply pass monotonously. He no longer feels contentment but neither does he feel discomfort. Making an awkward phone call to a woman we assume is his wife, he reveals that a project has come up that he simply cannot ignore – one which takes him back to a particular summer he passed as a young man in which he encountered a lost soul and perhaps lost some of his own, too.
In the summer of 1990, the narrator was just about to graduate university and had already secured a job. Taking the final opportunity to indulge some wanderlust, he takes off riding his pedal bike across the country. However, after he gets knocked over and is taken to a local bar for some first aid treatment by its classically sad mama-san, he decides to stay and is given the nickname of “traveller” by the regulars at House 475. It’s here that he meets the titular Seiji – a cynical man with unusual presence which seems to inspire both admiration and exasperation in the small group of people who’ve come to regard the bar as a home from home.
Despite its genial, summery quality, the bar is home to several kinds of sorrow. Shoko, it turns out has her own reasons for her sadness and her relationship with Seiji is often a complicated one. It’s she who describes Seiji as a fish on land – completely at odds with his environment and entirely unable to live in the world or get along with his fellow humans. Carrying deep seated scars from his past, Seiji, she claims, is unable to feel joy so long he knows someone (anyone, anywhere) is suffering. Or, more to the point, he feels so intensely guilty that he will not allow himself to be happy and has, in some senses, given up living in this world in favour of his own filled with melancholy loneliness.
Indeed, the friendly grandfather from next-door remarks that Seiji sees things far too clearly and that’s why he’s given in to despair. According to him, our human defence against the powerlessness and fear inherent in being alive is simply becoming inured. Our insensitivity saves us, but men like Seiji feel too much and are unable to bear it. On the rare occasion Seiji smiles, it’s often to do with the little girl who lives next-door, Ritsuko, but tragedy is about to come crashing in, changing lives forever and shattering grandpa’s faith in the god he previously said granted us our lack of clarity to help us cope with life’s harshness. Seiji’s reaction is an extreme one, filled with a poetic weight that is difficult for those around him to understand but at the same time perfectly in keeping with his world view.
Framing sequence aside, Iseya opts for an interesting, slightly non-linear structure in which scenes jostle like memories, slightly disordered, sometimes repeated from a different angle and with greater insight. The framing sequence itself proves the least successful aspect of the film as it fails to marry itself to the implications of the central narrative and anchor its final scene to provide the necessary weight.
Mirai Moriayama imbues the unnamed narrator with an appropriate level of passivity whilst Hideyoshi Nishijima mirrors him with an equal and opposing force of presence which is by turns mysterious, intriguing, and occasionally threatening yet filled with vulnerability. Supporting roles are also well drawn notably by Hirofumi Arai’s local boy left behind and Kiyohiko Shibukawa’s up and coming businessman about to blow out of the small town for bubble era Tokyo, as well as the damaged bar owner Shoko played by Nae Yuki whose disintegration is slowed by Seiji’s presence but still very much in evidence.
If Fish on Land has a weakness, it’s that the invading dark forces it presents feel like a cruel, absurd, visitation on this otherwise idyllic place yet perhaps that’s entirely the point. Life is full of unpredictable cruelties which have to be accommodated no matter how difficult they may be to bear. Men like Seiji are carrying a heavy burden, one which was given to them when their arms were too weak to hold it, but still, you keep on living. Beautifully photographed, intricately plotted and rich with both character and philosophical detail Seiji: Fish on Land proves another interesting effort from Iseya who doubtless has even more to offer in the future.