Actors who also direct, though plentiful in Hollywood, are not so common in Japan. But Sara Ogawa’s career may be a sign that times are changing. Born in 1996, she has been an in-demand actor since she was a teenager, while directing three shorts and four full-length films, including her latest, “The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea.”

Released by Toei Video, it is also Ogawa’s first theatrical feature, made with talent, vision and lyricism that propels the film through its brief 76-minute running time, while conjuring up the protagonist’s inner world more with sidelong suggestions than bold statements.

Shot in the countryside of Kagoshima Prefecture, where Ogawa’s mother grew up, “The Goldfish” has an intimate atmosphere, and its story, based on her original script, has strong emotional roots and narrative bones.

The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea (Umibe no Kingyo)
Run Time 76 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

The story centers on Hana (Miyu Ogawa, not related to the director), who is about to turn 18 as the film begins and has been living in a group home for the past 10 years, ever since her mother was arrested and sent to prison for a horrific crime (that is never revealed to the audience). The other children in the home are far younger and mostly nameless, save for Harumi (Runa Hanada), a new arrival whose constant companion is a stuffed toy rabbit.

Withdrawn, stubborn and prickly, Harumi nonetheless attracts Hana, who gently and persistently tries to befriend the girl. When Harumi runs away to the local train station, Hana frantically pursues her. Back at the home, Hana reads to her; at a nearby grocery store, she buys her a much-desired box of candy. Slowly and hesitantly, Harumi begins to open up and blend in, with Hana serving as the tolerant, understanding older sister she never had.

But as calm and giving as Hana appears on the surface, she carries emotional scars not always easy to see — or interpret. Why is she so bent on making Harumi promise to be a “good girl”? Why does she gaze so intently at her pet goldfish, as though they harbor some sort of personal, secret meaning?

We find hints in flashbacks to her childhood, some idyllic, others disturbing. We also find that not all is well with her present: The group home is a paradise of nonjudgmental care, but her high school classmates regard her with undisguised contempt, save for a bullied boy she helps — and who views her as a fellow outsider. Also, her future is uncertain, just as her past continues to haunt her.

Miyu Ogawa plays Hana with a mix of gravity and vulnerability that invites admiration and sympathy. For all her outward maturity, Hana has a lot in common with little Harumi, who still longs for her mother, despite her scars. The strengthening of their bond as the story approaches its climax has the force of revelation. Hana discovers not only a kindred spirit, but something essential about herself.

Like her goldfish in their bowl, she has been protected and nurtured, but now she needs to be free. The way she expresses that need is visually striking and emotionally powerful, if a touch worrying. Hana’s beloved pets are, after all, not poetic metaphors, but living creatures. Their dreams are not of the sea, which is poison to them. Fish flakes are maybe more like it.

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