Content Warning: Fishbowl Wives and this Review Contain Discussion of Domestic Violence
When it comes to series about romance, it’s not too often we get to see them focused on the cracks in love and the infidelity it can breed. This is the space that Fishbowl Wives fills with its intimate and somber narrative. A Netflix original series based on Kurosawa R’s manga, Kingyozuma, the series stars Ryoko Shinohara, Takanori Iwata, Masanobu Ando, and Kyoko Hasegawa.
Now, the series isn’t about pure romantic love and grand confessions. It’s about the kind of intimacy and romance that could be seen as coming from lust and selfishness but comes from a place more somber. A look at intimate affairs, Fishbowl Wives, takes the concept of cheating and expands on the push and pull factors, the deep sadness, and the loneliness in the lives of women struggling to hold onto themselves.
Living on the top floor of a high-rise condo building overlooking an urban area with a traditional atmosphere, Sakura Hiraga (Ryoko Shinohara) gives up on her dreams after an accident and marries a beauty salon owner. Now a housewife, she appears to have everything any woman could want. Her life, or at least its facade, has a beautiful sheen and one that she should be happy with. But instead of happiness, she finds herself trapped in a cycle of spite and abuse. As Sakura’s sense of helplessness grows, she soon identifies with her “goldfish” in its bowl. Owned by someone and stuck looking out to a space she can never go. One day, the “goldfish” leads to an opportunity where she meets a man. When he accepts her for who she is, Sakura is unable to hold back the feelings she has kept buried inside and crosses a line that changes her life forever.
Fishbowl Wives is erotic first, opening with a long sex scene before it cruises into a somber world of appearances. The eroticism of the series works to build out the narrative. Sex done out of lust is portrayed drastically different than that done out of love. Eroticism breaks down relationships, or it builds them up in this series by casting a difference between the physical nature of the act the emotional intimacy it can create. The use of eroticism as a storytelling tool is the power of the series. It’s not there to shock and awe, but to showcase the moments where bridges are burned and built between moments in time and characters. What intimacy looks like and how its experience is on display in Fishbowl Wives.
The metaphor of the sakura ryukin, the “sakura goldfish,” and our lead is a powerful one that maps out the story. The goldfish Sakura takes home is the one she falls in love with for its beautiful color, but as the shop attendant (her future lover) explains, the color is lost when the water becomes dirty. She asks him if the color can come back once it’s lost, to which he responds, yes, but with enough love and care. It’s a moment that builds a foundation for the story. While it is on the nose at first, how this concept evolves over time is what draws the audience in.
As much as Fishbowl Wives is about a romance between an older woman’s affair with a younger man, it’s more about finding the courage to survive outside of marriage and ultimately leave a bad situation. Sakura has to find herself outside of the men around her and find meaning that brings her to life again. While this begins by crossing the line with a cute goldfish seller, it culminates with moments of introspection and resilience. Sakura embraces who she is, her wants as much as her needs, and that’s the real love story.
That said, Sakura’s relationship with Haruto is still an important one. His innocence and the way he encourages her to exhale everything she holds inside is important to Sakura’s growth. To see Sakura nurtured in a relationship balanced starkly against the abuse she endures from her husband is heartbreaking. Even more so when her tender moments with Haruto are spliced with scenes of her husband’s infidelity in which he belittles her to other women. At times, Fishbowl Wives is hard to watch. Not because it’s bad, but because the way Takuya treats Sakura is hard to witness, especially once she’s begun to pull away.
The best part of the series is that Sakura’s vulnerability isn’t the only one explored. The extended cast of Fishbowl Wives explores the things hidden from public view and the push and pulls, and the unhappiness that boils beneath the surface. In a way, Fishbowl Wives feels more like an anthology than it is one linear narrative. While Sakura is the nexus of everything, with her public infidelity intertwining with and pushing many of the women around her, Yuka, Noriko, Saya, and Hisako have their own stories. They have their sadness and loneliness that help round out the series’ focus.
While it’s easy to see the theme of infidelity, Fishbowl Wives is ultimately more concerned with how the women become, well, fishbowl wives to begin with. It’s less about the morality of their transgressions and more about how they use it to fix themselves or how they turn away from it and seek communication instead. There are a multitude of expectations and reasons that range from feeling neglected to having an extramarital relationship at a husband’s request that turns into something more.
But while infidelity is at the core, not every marriage is one that people want to escape from, and not every affair is one done out of lust or even vulnerability. The exploration of experience and intention across each wife presents a complex narrative of love, longing, and losing yourself. But by showcasing a multitude of reasons for marriages to fall apart, Fishbowl Wives also takes care to show relationships rebuild and be spared from the crossing of the line.
That said, by not just focusing on Sakura’s story, we end with episodes that leave you desperate to get back to her. While the side stories in the series are well done, Sakura’s is the most compelling and the one that you get to spend the most time in. Once you reach the fourth side-story, it becomes hard to graph onto new ones when you’re extremely ready to see how Sakura’s life is going. Despite being based on an anthology manga and naming each episode on the wife in focus (“The Fishbowl Wife,” “The Lunchbox Wife,” “The Outsourcing Wife,” “The Headache Wife,” The Renovation Wife,” and “The Chaperone Wife”), Sakura’s story it the main throughline and it didn’t necessarily have to be. Halfway between anthology and standard linear narrative, truly dedicated on episode per story could have allowed us to see so much more about the women on their own terms without cutting back to Sakura.
Fishbowl Wives is a study on independence, resiliency, and ultimately the role women are expected to play for their husbands. It’s an exploration of societal pressures and gender expectations through infidelity. But what makes the series work is that the women are never cast as villains, even when their motives are selfish. While this isn’t a series that will make you fall in love with love, it will make you take stock of who you are both inside and out of it. With a stunning finale episode that gives us a glimpse into the paths each woman chose, Fishbowl Wives is a series that feels utterly complete.
Fishbowl Wives is streaming now exclusively on Netflix.
- Rating - 8/108/10
Fishbowl Wives is a study on independence, resiliency, and ultimately the role women are expected to play for their husbands. It’s an exploration of societal pressures and gender expectations through infidelity. But what makes the series work is that the women are never cast as villains, even when their motives are selfish.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.