Goldfish Go Home (Japan, 2012)

When we say ‘children’s film’, we often imply that it’s not for adults. But we also know that many children’s films have a tone and sensibility that can reach adults as well. I can’t say that Shohei Shiozaki’s Goldfish Go Home is an example of a children’s film that crosses generations. Don’t expect the depth or tone of a Hayao Miyazaki anime geared towards children like My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Goldfish Go Home is an enjoyable film, but it’s not profound. These tricks are for kids, but that doesn’t mean an adult can’t enjoy it. It means an adult can enjoy it for what it is for kids. And it shouldn’t be slammed for lacking profundity because it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise.

Goldfish Go Home is the story of little Hanako (Nanako Oh’ide) and not so little (in size) Ricardo (Takeshi Nagata), who both live in a small town in Nara Prefecture. Ricardo was brought along to Japan from Brazil by his reverse-migrating mother Maria (Tachi Kirihara). Ricardo speaks mostly Portuguese and doesn’t fit in at school. Hanako is the daughter of a local goldfish breeder and she finds Ricardo a bit creepy in the beginning. But then Ricardo is guided by a ghost into a sacred space where he finds a blue goldfish, a breed thought to be extinct. Along with bringing Hanako and Ricardo together in friendship, it is this blue goldfish that adds a magical element to the film. It is also this goldfish that brings the Mayor (Takashi Sasano) to connive the perfect means to promote his plan to make this town the goldfish capital of the archipelago.  It is the mayor’s efforts that lead to most of the film’s slapstick. In addition to these characters, there is Carlos (played with tempered flamboyance by Kabuki actor Shido Nakamura), the owner of a local Brazilian-themed bar where the Japanese-Brazilians in the town, such as Ricardo’s mother, know to go in times of need. Carlos’ bar is a regular spot for city worker Mayuko (played by Kana Mikuro, the 7-minutes younger identical sister of actress Mana Mikura), a character torn by her affection for the Japanese-Brazilian community and the demands of her less than ethical boss, the Mayor.

Director Shiozaki attended San Jose State University, so having the U.S. premiere at the gorgeous California theatre in downtown San Jose as part of the 2013 Cinequest Film Festival was a bit of a homecoming for Shiozaki. What I found compelling about Goldfish Go Home was the integration in the story of the lives of Japanese-Brazilians. or Brazilian nekkeijin, a term used for Japanese born outside Japan. In the Q&A after the film, I asked what brought him to partially revolve the story around Japanese-Brazilians. He said he wanted to make a film in his hometown and while returning there and researching possible story lines, he was introduced to the significant population of Japanese-Brazilian dakasegi (temporary migrant workers) in his home prefecture. As a result, he incorporated characters in his film from that community as well as casting locals to play the Japanese-Brazilian characters.

I remember in college being puzzled by the Japanese surname of the President of Peru at that time, Alberto Fujimori (Holding office for ten years from 1990-2000, he would eventually be impeached in 2000 and convicted of corruption and embezzlement charges along with human rights violations.)  Confusion is alleviated by education, so I soon schooled myself about Japanese citizens venturing out to Latin America in the early part of the 20th century, most prominently in Brazil. It was a labor shortage in Brazil that brought Japanese to Brazil and a labor shortage in Japan that brought Japanese-Brazilian descendents back to Japan again.  Japan is a country somewhat resistant to immigration, so bringing Japanese nikkeijin in as workers is a compromise of sorts. In spite of their Japanese heritage, Japanese from Latin American countries residing in Japan often face discrimination and rejection in Japan. The obstacles Japanese-Brazilians face are presented in the film by how Hanako finds Ricardo creepy initially, how Ricardo is bullied by his classmates, and how his lack of proficiency in the Japanese language obstructs his ability to connect with his peers. We also witness the vulnerable residency predicaments of Japanese-Brazilians through the ending of Maria’s work contract.

In addition to the obstacles Japanese-Brazilians face, Takeyuki Tsuda, in his book Strangers in the Ethnic Homeland:  Japanese Brazilian Return Migration in Transnational Perspective (Columbia University Press, 2003), notes how, ‘Despite their Japanese phenotype, they are conspicuous in public not only because they speak Portuguese but because of their distinctly different dress and demeanor’ (p. x). What I particularly appreciate regarding Shiozaki’s film is how he doesn’t overdue these cultural differences, but he doesn’t deny them either. Maria and Ricardo’s dress is different from the Japanese around them, but not drastically so.  And the one moment when Maria’s ‘demeanor’ differentiates, in a confrontation with city officials, it is not portrayed outlandishly in a tone of caricature. In showing a segment of Japan’s diversity that often goes unnoticed outside Japan, as is discussed in detail in John Lie’s book Multiethnic Japan (Harvard University Press, 2001), Shiozaki has emphasized embracing these differences rather than discarding them or trying to hammer down the protruding nail of difference.  He even places Maria and Ricardo in a new home that is a replica of an old Japanese village house, as if firmly establishing the legitimate place of Japanese-Brazilians in the larger course of Japanese history.

And Goldfish Go Home isn’t just inclusive of Japanese-Brazilians. The Brazil-themed bar owner Carlos is Gay, speaking throughout the film in one kotoba or ‘camp speech’ (One kotoba is short for onesan kotoba or ‘big sister speech’.)  He is situated as one of the more admirable citizens in this town. He is played by the famous Kabuki actor Shido Nakamura, whose star status extends his character’s influence, as well as garnering acceptance of his effeminacy, since Kabuki actors are a section of Japanese society that are permitted to express a more feminine masculinity. Again, Shiozaki does not direct Nakamura to overdo the feminine affinities of Carlos. Still, Carlos’ subtle flamboyance is used to full impact at the end of the film when a lovely visual connection between goldfish and Brazilian culture is made that unites the town. Carlos’ queer presence in this children’s film underscores Judith Halberstam’s argument in the wonderful book, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke Univesity Press, 2011), that childhood is an inherently queer state of disorder, or a time when we refuse to abide by hegemonic orders. Many of the best children’s films and shows are queer – Pee Wee’s Playhouse (1986-1991), anyone? – or at least can be queered in interpretation. You will never watch Finding Nemo (2003) the same way again after reading Halberstam’s critique. In Goldfish Go Home, Carlos is the pied piper peacock-ing as he leads new Japan’s parade to enable space to express ones vibrant, colorful individuality rather than always demanding one conform to the hegemonic masculinity perpetrated by the local yakuza and the local mayor.

Again, Goldfish Go Home should not be mistaken for an exemplary film. Yet it also shouldn’t be mistaken as mindless chatter. Its significance derive from how it presents a Japan beyond stereotypes of restrictive ethnicity, nationality and masculinity.  In an entertaining manner, it presents possibilities for Japan as it loosens up to participate in a possibly more progressive and exuberant conga line towards the future.