Let’s learn about other cultures through the only medium we have the attention span for: Cartoons! I don’t know what to expect from Russian cartoons. I guess I expect them to be pretty much like any other cartoon, except with sadder eyes and more track pants. 1984’s Wow, A Talking Fish! does not set out to prove me wrong.
I want to be clear that, despite the tension between our governments, I hold nothing against the Russian people. Same goes for the Chinese, Venezuelans, Iranians — really anyone but the Luxembourgers, natural nemeses of the Hot Dog. I believe we’re all just people trying our best, and if our governments want to set us to conflict, they’re the enemy. So it is in the spirit of togetherness that I say: This guy is more Russian than election interference. He’s a Lada being pulled by a donkey. This is the human form of that moment when a really bangin’ EDM track comes on in the troll farm. The only reason those aren’t track pants is because this is supposed to be like 1432.
He’s here to tell you a fish tale:
Only there’s a twist: It’s about a talking fish!
Hey, I remember how this one goes — the fisherman flips out because selling a talking fish will make him rich. But the fish promises him a wish if he lets him go, or like one day the fisherman almost drowns but the fish saves him or something, right?
Only even the fish here look like they just got out of the gulag for dancing to American music…
And this fish doesn’t promise the man a wish, it just gives him a lecture about how good deeds are their own reward. Hey, you know what’s a better reward than a lecture? Talking fish meat.
Except there’s another difference from the tale we know: This fisherman is so emotionally abraded that he actually doesn’t give a shit about a talking fish.
This is the third talking fish he’s caught today. On the way to the beach he passed two talking chipmunks and one singing wolf, and not a single one of them could tell him why little Sasha had to die last winter. So the fisherman throws the fish back not out of kindness, but because he thinks it’s a useless piece of shit.
Well, that’s… not quite how I remember this fairy tale going. But I guess that would be the Soviet version of it.
The fisherman takes a seat, exhausted by the useless whimsy of this whole situation, and sighs. That’s the wrong move, because every time you sigh in Russia…
A nonsense monster explodes out of the ground to scream at you.
No, Ekh. He said it as one part of a longer sound. It was a single syllable in what was probably going to be a fourteen syllable sigh of weariness before your Zheltyy Submarine ass popped up. “Ekh” is just a verbal interjection in Russian, it means something like “wow.” So I guess this nightmare beast is doing about eighty million appearances a day, and that’s why we have all those dashcam videos of Russians just utterly unfazed by passing comets and sewage explosions. They’re not innately a sad and stoic people; they’re suffering from acute whimsy fatigue.
Oh, also he’s Santa Claus.
Hey, remember how I said there wouldn’t be track pants because this takes place in a 1430s fishing village? I’m sorry I lied to you.
I feel like I know that dude. Yeah! He asked me if I wanted to fuck his sister for some cigarettes in a laundromat in Southeast Portland. Good dude. He did not like Parliaments.
Ekh is the violent creative ejaculation of Soviet-era animators all pent-up from drawing nothing but gray mice in concrete buildings crying over a piece of bread wasted by the Bourgeoisie. More effort went into ten seconds of Ekh’s screentime than went into every single episode of He-Man put together. Every part of him is constantly transforming into something else, and since it’s Russia that includes a man who wants to sell you a sick dog at least twice.
Hey, there’s the guy that ran the laundromat!
Ekh offers the fisherman a magic table that generates free food when you knock on it. Listen, in 1984 Russia a good day was one when your mother didn’t lose a foot, so the standards for kickass enchanted items are way down here. Never wanting for a sandwich again was the Soviet equivalent of finding all the Dragonballs.
The fisherman couldn’t give a shit about a talking fish, but sometime after Ekh’s foot turns into a lady-baby and rockets into the sky, he grabs that table and…
Fucking books it like a KGB honeypot just started playing “Don’t Stop Me Now” and he can’t go back to Dance Gulag again.
He sprints back to his wife, and this being a Russian film in the ‘80s, she only gets two lines and all of them are about suffering. But she steals the show anyway. Here she is after he explains the whole magic table thing:
My god, that sad smirk tells you everything: It tells you this is not the first time her husband has pulled this shit. It tells you that she remembers when he brought back a footstool that made shoes, and a nightstand that always refilled your glass of water. It tells you she still has not forgiven him for the magic underwear.
But the fisherman knocks three times anyway, and the table produces a feast! One that immediately turns into Ekh:
Who tells them he will come by at midnight and ask them riddles until dawn, which sounds like kind of a shitty theme night at a nerd bar, but a fair deal for a table that will always burrito.
Here’s what the wife thinks about this mystical nonsense in her sensible home:
Just before midnight, a strange guest arrives!
Haha all right, I definitely know this one now. Look at that guy. He’s different parts of eight dudes and he’s wearing fuckin’ Adidas in the 1400s. That’s really Ekh, and if they treat him well or pass his test, everything is cool.
Only there’s another knock at the door…
In this tale, the guest steps outside to greet Ekh and whatever you think comes next, you are probably not right. And if you are right, you need to get to a hospital right now because this is the visual equivalent of smelling toast:
I’m not skipping anything — the guest opens the door and just starts screaming gibberish as fast as he possibly can. Ekh, like any reasonable person, completely hates it.
It’s not some kind of magic spell, it’s not an answer to Ekh’s riddle — he never even got to ask one. This dude barely answered the door before he launched into the worst kind of ‘lol so random’ verbal diarrhea. He’s an entire Invader Zim fan forum in one guy, in two minutes.
This scene goes on for so long! Again, it’s because the animators love it — the animation is legitimately amazing, and you can tell the animators know it’s possibly the only fun they’ll ever be allowed to have, so they really want to explore the space; tell the grandkids about the one time they were just straight unproductively horseshit for an entire week — but for the viewer, it’s like all three hours of going to see your roommate’s improv troupe condensed into 180 seconds.
I always want to allow for the idea that I’m just missing some kind of cultural context. When I don’t understand something in anime, I assume it’s referencing niche Japanese folklore I don’t know, and there’s actually a very good reason those panties can talk, and turn into a shy boy every time somebody mentions steamed buns.
Is this the Russian version of that?
Because it seriously looks like an irritating hipster doofus bothers a shape-shifting magician monster like a sugared-up toddler for a few minutes…
Until the monster gets sick of it and explodes into the sky. Again — not because he’s been tricked, or his weakness is exploited, just because he fuckin’ hates this wandom so much it’s not even fun anymore.
And did you guess the twist? If you did, tell the toast doctor you can slide left if there’s not a cat nearby — your misfiring brain will turn that into “It’s too late for me, I just don’t want it to hurt anymore.”
That’s right! The 14th-century hipster — who looks like the kind of guy that freestyle raps at the bus stop and really hits those hard Rs — was actually the talking fish from earlier!
So I guess the lesson here is that if you do a good deed, it’ll come back to you. Except… immediately after he helped the fish, the fisherman received a magical reward that turned out to be a curse. So… maybe it’s “be careful what kind of gifts you accept?” But I think he got to keep the table after the fishipster dorked the everything-beast back to heaven. So the moral is… don’t fish? Stop trusting tables? Wait, this is a Soviet cartoon: The moral is ‘fuck the west, don’t complain about stuff.’ Nailed it!
See you next time!