An emotionally repressed salaryman discovers that it really is all about connection in Yukinori Makabe’s absurdist musical, Love, Life, and Goldfish (すくってごらん, Sukutte Goran). Adapted from the manga by Noriko Otani, the Japanese title is itself a minor pun in that it could be translated either as “please try to save me”, or “please have a go at scooping” as in goldfish which is a popular activity at Japanese summer festivals. A fish out of water, former top banker Makoto (Matsuya Onoe) is in a sense saving himself, biding his time until he’s scooped back up again, but discovers his true purpose may be to save someone else in this strange, goldfish-obsessed tranquil country town. 

Defiantly aloof, Makoto arrives a wounded man resentful that one mistake could have derailed his career to the extent that he’s gone from a cushy job in the Tokyo head office to a regular clerk in a rural branch of a nationwide bank. Viewing himself as an elite, infinitely better than all these country bumpkins with their weird goldfish obsession, Makoto is scrupulously polite but abruptly deflects the attempts of his new colleagues to make him feel welcome. He does however, develop a fascination for a melancholy young woman dressed in kimono, Yoshino (Kanako Momota), whom he firstly mistakes for a geisha running a house of ill-repute only to realise that her establishment caters to a different clientele in that she runs a goldfish scooping emporium. Meanwhile, he also becomes an object of fascination for Asuka (Nicole Ishida), a young woman running a bar with her brother. 

Makoto is fond of saying that “numbers don’t lie”, devoting himself entirely to work and insisting that he has no need of things like love or friendship but is in fact deeply lonely and trying to fill the void with industry. Though we never see much of his previous life, it’s easy to assume that he has at some point been deeply hurt and has affected this impervious persona as a means of self defence. Nevertheless, bottling up his emotions is apparently what caused his career to implode leading him to break with salaryman protocol and tell his boss what he actually thought in a less than polite manner. In a repeated motif, Makoto is no longer sure if and when his interior monologue has become exterior with the unwanted consequence that some of his less than charitable thoughts and inner insecurities accidentally leak into the outside world. 

More self aware than he seems, Makoto is moved to tears on hearing a heartfelt song from Asuka who, like him, is a Tokyo “reject” having come back after failing to achieve her dreams of becoming an actress. Overwhelmed by the sight of someone expressing their emotions without embarrassment he can’t help crying but continues to struggle with his feelings for Yoshino who is herself perhaps also feeling something similar. Once a promising pianist, she now only plays alone too afraid of judgement or rejection to risk playing for others. 

Tellingly Makoto’s Tokyo outburst had been over a business plan for an AI robot massage parlour which his boss dismissed on the grounds that it’s human warmth and kindness which are essential for healing. Of course Makoto didn’t want to hear that because he wants to live in a cold world of order ruled by the unassailable logic of numbers, but through gradually bonding with the townspeople comes to accept that it’s human connection that’s most important after all. “Sometimes you have to face reality even if it’s painful”, he remarks eventually realising that “you can’t save anyone if you obsess over numbers” after failing to scoop an arbitrary number of goldfish with a broken paddle. 

Realising life’s not a numbers game gives Makoto the courage to sing with his heart no longer quite so repressed as he prepares to escape this strange holding tank for the oceans of the metropolis. An old-fashioned integrated musical, the whimsical score skips through several genres from j-pop to rap though it’s true enough that some of the melodies stray uncomfortably close to popular hits from recent musical theatre and family animation. Nevertheless, the quirky production design and absurdist direction make Love, Life, and Goldfish difficult to resist as the repressed salaryman its centre learns to open his heart while swimming in a different river to realise that it really is all about feeling after all. 


Love, Life and Goldfish screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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