Seiji -- A Fish on Land: Film Review

An evocative mood piece on the elusive search for happiness.

Actor Yusuke Iseya's second feature takes us off the beaten path on the search for happiness.

TOKYO -- A mellow evocation of the transient connection between three nomadic souls, Seiji – A Fish on Land displays stylistic and emotional maturity, considering it is only the sophomore feature directed by prominent Japanese actor Yusuke Iseya (13 Assassins, Blindness). Expressing physical pain, psychological scars and wistful desire with jazzy scores and smoky, moody images, the story flows with the spontaneity of a jam session, lightening the dramatic load of its heavy themes and smoothing over abrupt plot turns. Lead actor Hidetoshi Nishijima (Cut, Sayonara Itsuka) exerts an intensely brooding presence that provides emotional anchoring for the dispersed time-frame and impressionistic first-person narrative structure devised by screenwriter-producer Takamasa Kameishi, who adapts from a novel by Tomotaka Tsujiuchi

Major box office success may elude this small yet concerted effort, but the film could find a comfortable spot in semi-arthouse releases, festivals and Asian-centered ancillary.

Although Seiji takes a roundabout way to get to the central drama, there’s neither any lull nor awkwardness in the transition of time and character focus. The narrator, a forty-something, man-on-the-road impulsively makes a detour to a dilapidated middle-of-nowhere bar. This move takes him back to the summer of 1990, when he is a final-year college student (played by Mirai Moriyama) on a cross-country bicycle trip. A road accident lands him in the drive-in bar-diner House 475. Entranced by its owner, the beautiful divorcee Shoko (Nae Yuki), he decides to stay on as a temp waiter. But the person who eventually intrigues him more is the laconic, ruggedly handsome manager Seiji (Nishijima) who seems to bear an unutterable burden, and invites conjectures about a mysterious, possibly bloody past.

The film creates its own dreamlike rhythm in the editing which weaves dramatically diverse, a-chronological scenes and alternating human perspectives into a collage-like but seamless whole. Its sensual, bluesy mood works its charm most discreetly in the mid-section where essentially nothing happens except what matters to the curious, unworldly mind of the narrator, fondly nicknamed "Traveler" by the locals, such as shenanigans of the local band before its members break up to "get a life"; Seiji's rare unguarded and blissful moments around a young girl Ritsuko and her blind grandfather Genji (Masahiro Tsugawa) and the painfully repressed yet smoldering desire between Seiji and Shoko. The power of the soulful score sinks in during these dialogue-free scenes.

Seiji's drifter, fish-out-of-water persona is hardly original and heavily reinforced by water motifs, but considerable suspense is written into the unraveling of his past, which substantiates his inability to find lasting happiness. His shocking gesture in a climactic scene near the end may strike some viewers as excessive and unexpected.  In a way, it is consistent with his tendency to empathize so much with others' plight that he internalizes all forms of pain, expressing the film's weltschmerz motif. As if transformed by his no-holds-barred interpretation of a human sandbag in his last film Cut, Nishijima exudes a potent physicality, not only in steamy seduction scenes but even in moments of sullen introspection or repose. As the narrator, observer and only character who undergoes a coming-of-age experience, "Traveler" is a discreet foil for Seiji's dangerous unpredictability. In fact, Moriyama (Moteki, Fish Story) is so self-effacing that he feels like a supporting role.

Modest budget and minimal sets are no drawback for the professional technical credits. Iseya's academic background in fine arts can be gleaned from the stylish art direction and exquisite lighting.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival, Special Screenings.

Sales: GAGA Corporation.
Production company: Kino Films Corporation.
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Mirai Moriyama, Nae Yuki, Hirofumi Arai, Masahiko Tsugawa.
Director-screenwriter: Yusuke Iseya.
Screenwriter-producers: Takamasa Kameishi, Kiki Ishida.
Based on the novel by Tomotaka Tsujiuchi.
Producer: Yumiko Takebe.
Chief producer: Naoya Kinoshita.
Executive producer: Takenobu Nishiou
Director of photography: Yoko Itakura.
Production designer: Yuji Tsuzuki, Aiko Funaki.
Costume designer: Kazuhiro Sawadasishi.  
Music: Keiichiro Shibuya.
Editor: Mitsuo Nishiou
No rating, 108 minutes.