Japan is no stranger to quirky films, so when I heard about Yukinori Makabe's Love, Life and Goldfish [Sukutte Goran] I made sure to keep an eye out for it. After all, this is the type of film that could slip into a void if you blink twice. It promised to be a larger than life comedy with some strong musical influences, which was all I really needed to know. With that kind of premise, a film could go either way, but I was pretty confident this was going to end up an interesting watch regardless. And I'll say that Makabe didn't disappoint, though it's not going to be a film for everyone.
Japan isn't too big on musicals, though there are some notable exceptions. Nakashima's Memories of Matsuko and Sion Sono's Tokyo Tribe are probably the most eye-catching examples, Miike made some nice ones too (For Love's Sake and Happiness of the Katakuris), and if you count Ishii's Dead End Run you have yourself a pretty fine collection of films. I wouldn't say Love, Life and Goldfish is a 100% musical though. While songs and music do play a considerable role in the film, they're just ever so slightly more integrated into the story. The difference won't suffice to convince traditional musical haters, but it's big enough that it might deter the genre's biggest fans.
One of the primary reasons this film worked so well for me was its idyllic rural setting. There's something so incredibly calming and comforting about Japan's smaller rural villages and towns, it almost feels like you're spending a mini-vacation on your couch. Japan's island films are the true champs, but not by a great margin. Love, Life and Goldfish sports the ideal setting for a slightly fantastical musical, which are naturally prone to polishing and highlighting characteristic elements for increased effect. If that sound like a fun ride, I'm pretty confident this film won't disappoint.
Makoto is a nerdy banker, who believes in numbers, structure and risk assessment. When he screws up at the Tokyo branch, he is punished and sent to work for a minor branch in a tiny town. Makoto is greeted by the villager with open arms, but he has a tough time getting used to their rural ways. Everybody seems so carefree, and the town has an odd fascination with goldfish. Makoto has a change of heart when he meets Yoshino, a mysterious girl who runs a goldfish scooping shop. He falls in love with her, but if he wants to draw her attention he'll have to become a better version of himself first.
On the visual side, this is a very pleasant-looking film. The colors are generous and bright, the camera work is slick and well-planned and the setting is captured from all of its best angles. I maybe expected a little more from a musical, the cinematography isn't up there with the work of Mika Ninagawa or Ken Ninomiya, but that's just a bit of minor nitpicking. Love, Life and Goldfish sports that boldly colorful, slightly over-saturated look you'd expect a Japanese musical to carry, so it's clearly mission accomplished for Makabe.
I'm far from the biggest fan of Japanese music, which can be a little problematic for a film that relies on its soundtrack quite heavily. The featured genres here are pretty varied, though nothing too out of the ordinary. I don't think I'd put on any of the songs outside the context of the film, but I will say that the music integrates very well and none of the songs irritated me, which is quite an achievement for a musical. Maybe there could've been a tiny bit more feedback between the music and the visuals, but again, that's just me nitpicking.
The cast is solid across the board. There aren't too many truly outstanding performances, except maybe for Matsuya Onoe, who plays the lead character. His character is pretty unlikable and his personality doesn't make a full U-turn throughout the film, still Onoe manages to draw sympathy from the audience, even when his character may not always deserve it. The rest of the cast is on point, there are no weak performances, and they all prove themselves pretty capable singers, so I've got no real complaints here either.
Though filled with quirky details and moments of wonder, the structure of Love, Life and Goldfish is pretty much what you'd expect from a film like this. A stranger arrives in a place he doesn't want to be, slowly he starts to warm up to the people and the quirks of his new home. Makabe does play around with the main character a little, as to make sure it's not completely predictable, but those are just marginal changes. If it's narrative and characters you care about, this may not be the film for you, if it's creativity and mood you're after, Makabe has you covered.
Love, Life and Goldfish isn't the most outrageous Japanese musical, nor is it the most daring, but it is a film that manages to create its own little universe, slowly crawling under your skin as the film progresses. The lovely cinematography, the superb production design, the solid integration of the score and the pleasant performances all add up to a very charming and disarming film. Makabe delivers an impressive calling card that should have plenty of appeal for people appreciating mood and atmosphere, despite its somewhat tricky genre definition. Getting your hands on the film might prove to be the real challenge.