It is challenging to provide a summary for Queer Fish Lane. It is introduced as a work about travelling “chain-play” performers, Tarugani and Papajo, whose art is a fusion of film and theater. Later, it is revealed that both of them got involved in an incident when Tarugani accidentally took home a chemical aphrodisiac named Tottoro B13 from Seitoku’s store. Seitoku in turn sends out Bibiju, three ladies who are always wearing dripping wet dresses, to go after Tarugani and Papajo, to punish them by taking one of their ears off.
But I don’t really think that any summary would convey what the whole film is trying to say, though those are the main plot points. The challenge remains to grasp of the film in its entirety, not just its complex plotting and visual style, but its use of setting as well.
It has been noted somewhere that it is impossible to have a full understanding of a Go Takamine film without prior knowledge of Okinawa’s history. Formerly called as Ryukyu, a sovereign state until Japan claimed it in 1897, Okinawa has been subjected into different series of conflict involving occupation by other powers such as China and United States. In more recent history, Okinawa is better known for its large United States military bases, which were established at the brink of Vietnam War. In his debut feature Paradise View (1983), Takamine tackled the effect of this occupation by depicting Okinawans as insects under the power of its occupiers, Japan and United States.
Queer Fish Lane is Takamine’s first film to be made accessible for international audiences in almost 20 years. Like his previous works, it is certainly overtly political. The film refuses to acknowledge itself as Japanese, but distinguishes itself as Okinawan as early as the prologue. Queer Fish Lane continues Takamine’s surreal exploration of Okinawan imperial experience under both of Japan and United States. Consistent elements found in the film are the existence of an American figure, as with his other features, but this time using an Okinawan character, the rock and roller named Missiler, who is included in the film part of Tarugani and Papajo’s chain-play.
This is probably the boldest of Takamine’s features and Queer Fish Lane fully embraces the possibilities of digital filmmaking. The technology gives him some ease to create the illusions and other unusual visuals which separate layers of narrative. Takamine’s use of celluloid here makes no pretense to evoke nostalgia in the way that other filmmakers may have done. Contrary to this, his use of celluloid challenges the notion of memory as a consistent element of his films is Okinawa folklore which may or may not have actually happened. His contrived tales work as an argument of what Okinawa really must have been without the occupying powers. He dreams of an Okinawa which belonged to no one. There are scenes in which one can see celluloid sequences which create the illusion of distance and time. These sequences have the same tone and textures as those of Okinawa bombardment footages taken by United States Army. Takamine also challenges the earlier monopoly of celluloid on visual archiving. He represents celluloid as a mask for identity with Papajo’s “plastic surgery film” which replaces faces of people with others and uses them in their chain-plays.
The use of celluloid in the film also collides with the introduction of the fictional aphrodisiac, Tottoro B13. Both the aphrodisiac and celluloid suggests the existence of harmful chemical materials on the island, rings with familiarity to those who know the issue of Agent Orange exposure cases in Okinawa. Recurring in the film are footages of dissolving celluloid in Orange color.
Ultimately, while challenging memory, Queer Fish Lane also calls for a challenge against collective amnesia, a theme shared with more recent films from mainland Japan. But in Queer Fish Lane, this theme is specific to the issues of the island. Much as it is a visual delight, the film is also a deep reflection on Okinawa’s history and politics, concerns that will hopefully not be overshadowed by its apparent weirdness.
Hengyoro (Queer Fish Lane) is showing as part of JAPAN CUTS 2017 on Saturday July 15 at Japan Society at 2:30pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Japan Society website.