Marriage is misery in Fishbowl Wives (out now), and in most instances, the best way to alleviate that unhappiness is by falling into the arms of a man or woman who isn’t your spouse. Infidelity comes in all sorts of variations—and occurs for all types of reasons—in Netflix’s eight-part Japanese series (based on Ryô Kurosawa’s popular manga Kingyo Tsuma), which blends episodic storytelling with an ongoing serialized plot about an unlikely extramarital romance and the trouble it causes for everyone involved.
While Fishbowl Wives’ title might not immediately tip one off about its subject matter, it quickly hammers home its central metaphor. In present-day Tokyo, Sakura Hiraga (Ryôko Shinohara) finds her marriage to husband and salon-business partner Takuya (Masanobu Ando) falling apart due to Takuya’s rampant cheating—he’s introduced having passionate shower sex with apartment complex neighbor Yuriha (Kyoko Hasegawa)—and to his abusive violence. At a birthday bash, Sakura is informed by feng shui fortune teller Mei (Ren Hanami) that forlorn childless women should get themselves a pet… like a goldfish! Thus, Sakura goes to the nearby goldfish store, where she meets its proprietor Haruto (Takanori Iwata) and, in one of innumerable moments that dip into slow-motion, experiences love at first sight.
During a meet-cute phase that will have tremendous ramifications for them both, Haruto explains to Sakura that goldfish suffer when they’re kept in dirty water, but tender-loving care can rejuvenate them. They also need sizable bowls in order to truly shine. Moreover, they require careful, compassionate observation, and they can’t escape on their own—for that to happen, they need assistance. Did I mention that the particular goldfish Haruto first shows Sakura boasts her name? It’s patently clear that Haruto is the dreamboat destined to save Sakura, and therefore confirmation of Mei’s prior pronouncement that “each person meets their twin ray in their own time… their destined partner.” Takuya, on the other hand, is a marital villain of cartoonish proportions, educating his mistress Yuriha that “a man’s wife is the creature he lusts for least,” since what he covets most is another man’s bride!
Sakura creates a scandal in her high-rise residence when she not only hooks up with Haruto, but moves in with him—a development that spreads like wildfire on social media courtesy of her gossiping neighbors. Nonetheless, after a steamy first night together, Sakura and Haruto choose to play things chaste, with the former working at the latter’s business and learning his goldfish-nurturing trade (such as the fact that saltwater baths restore ailing goldfish to their original lustrous health). Theirs is a sweet and slowly blossoming amour, and its advancement is facilitated by Takuya’s insanely angry, jealous reaction to Sakura’s conduct, beating her up and generally acting like a domineering ogre, replete with him smashing the goldfish bowl that Sakura brought home from the shop.
Via flashbacks, Fishbowl Wives reveals that Sakura stopped cutting hair (her lifelong passion) because of an incident in which she protected a young girl from falling glass and, for her heroic effort, suffered a career-debilitating injury. Haruto seems to know more than he’s letting on about this misfortune, but as with his own estranged relationship with his family, the series maintains its mysteries for as long as possible. Which is not to say that anything is very surprising in these eight installments; there’s rarely a twist that isn’t easily predicted from a mile away—a situation compounded by the overarching cheesiness of its every plaintive piano tune, acoustic guitar strum, or snippet from “Crazy For You,” a pop ballad played often enough to drive even the most patient viewer mad.
Fishbowl Wives’ early episodes deliver consistent sexual romps and equally adult dialogue, as when two men discuss the reason the human penis evolved into its current shape (the apparent answer: so it could scoop out rivals’ semen from their mates’ vaginas). By its midway point, though, the show largely abandons its more erotic impulses in favor of tame melodrama involving Sakura and Haruto’s budding connection (and messy circumstances), as well as individual vignettes about their fellow apartment dwellers. In one, a couple’s fraying relationship—he a workaholic chauvinist, she a depressed shut-in—is paralleled by their running habits. In another, a man convinces his work colleague to flirt with his wife in order to get her in the mood for baby-making, only to have that plan backfire. And in a final segment, put-upon Yuriha forms a bond with a construction worker over their similar birthmarks.
“In each of these strands, cheating is a manifestation of deeper domestic discontent, and thus motivated not by base carnal desires—or an interest in betraying or hoodwinking unsatisfactory partners—but by a universal longing for contentment.”
In each of these strands, cheating is a manifestation of deeper domestic discontent, and thus motivated not by base carnal desires—or an interest in betraying or hoodwinking unsatisfactory partners—but by a universal longing for contentment. Every guy is either horrid and roguish, contrite and decent, or noble and faultless, and their female counterparts are rendered in similarly simplistic terms. It’s probably asking too much for a believable character in a series that routinely has fun trotting out psychic Mei, who reads clients’ tarot cards on a table decorated with an actual crystal ball. Still, Fishbowl Wives works very hard at keeping things basic and ridiculous, never more so than with a two-episode tale in which a woman who suffers from severe headaches whenever anyone mentions her husband winds up initiating a sudden affair with a local stranger who looks very familiar to her son.
Caught between adhering to—and breaking—stereotypes, Fishbowl Wives posits adultery as excusable (if not outright liberating), abusive husbands as simultaneously malevolent and redeemable, and love as life’s ultimate goal. Such confusion extends to its portrait of women’s current place in the household and workforce, with some female characters finding value as successful homemakers, and others only thriving once they’ve escaped their kitchens and living rooms. One thing, however, is certain in this modern fairy tale about the pleasures and pitfalls of two-timing: ecstasy is always the surest path to empowerment.