Cold Fish is Sion Sono’s award winning film loosely based on the real-life exploits of serial killer couple Gen Sekine and his ex-wife Hiroko Kazama who perpetrated Tokyo’s notorious 1993 “Saitama serial murders of dog lovers”. It received its premiere at the 2010 Venice Film Festival and is a genuinely brilliant film.
Shamoto (Fukikoshi) runs a small tropical fish shop with his second wife Taeko (Kagurazaka) and rebellious daughter Mitsuko (Kajiwara). One day Mitsuko is caught shoplifting but an intervention by a friendly man named Murata (Denden) prevents the store manager from pressing charges. As it turns out Murata also runs a tropical fish store with his wife Aiko (Kurosawa). Won over by Murata’s charm Shamoto and his unhappy family form a bond of friendship with him and Mitsuko even goes to work for him. What Shamoto does not realise is that Murata is not as friendly as he seems to be and soon finds there are many dark and twisted secrets behind the smile and he is powerless to resist.
Cold Fish like many of Sion Sono’s films flits between horror, satire, thriller, and comedy. It is heavy on gore and black humour with writing and acting that perverts believable drama into a crazy, enjoyable, and moving ride.
The story can happen anywhere people exist. Shamoto’s family are believably unhappy, with each individual wrapped up in their own lives with Taeko sour from a life she feels is wasted, Shamoto unable to express his true feelings and Mitsuko contemptuous of her parents.
Shamoto is one part hapless and mostly meek. He is a simple man unable to deal with adversity and the absurdity of life. His inability to deal with life sees him retreat into his dreams just to escape conflicts that might be solved if he was more proactive and was able to communicate his real feelings to his family.
Fukikoshi develops sympathy by capturing the good-natured but timid nature of Shamoto who wants to avoid the ugly reality of life. Despite his best intentions he cannot overcome his meekness. As the film progresses he goes from looking affable but ineffective to genuinely horrified, squeezing himself into corners out of sight of the horror. Through Murata’s insistent bullying Shamoto reveals his pent up anger and when he snaps the rage is recognisable.
Equally recognisable is the bitterness and resentment that Taeko feels. It is portrayed by Kagurazaka in the curl of distaste her mouth takes when her husband speaks or the poisonous looks she shoots Mitsuko. At one point her relationship with Shamoto had romance and they understood one another as individuals and shared dreams.
Unfortunately the romance has gone. Through a guilty memory that Shamoto has that is revealed in a flashback we see that her life as a step-mother is very difficult to say the least and Shamoto is unwilling to do anything to help. She has had to suppress her true self and now suffers in silence with only Murata seemingly able to understand her.
Mitsuko for her part is a bitchy and rebellious teen and little more. Her behaviour is extreme but I suspect it only reflects the hurt that she feels at having an ineffective father and a strange woman for a mother.
This is not a happy family as a shot of them sat awkwardly in each other’s presence demonstrates.
In steps Murata who offers an exit to their unhappiness. Denden is a revelation in this film. I’m so used to seeing him play supporting characters but here he is unleashed and it all looks effortless. Initially jovial and like a beneficent uncle only the most suspicious and wary are aware that he has an edge to him but the extent of his lunacy is kept under wraps by that winning smile.
Murata, like any good psycho, is a convincing, charismatic and charming character. He can read the darkness in people’s souls and he brazenly uses this to his advantage. We witness his process.
“My philosophy is business is entertainment.”
By dazzling people with his joviality and outlandish behaviour he disarms their scepticism, by taking a direct and seemingly honest tack in conversations he beguiles them and when he turns on the empathy he truly has people under his control. Denden is this force of energy who can mask his darkness behind smiles but flip at any moment and it is scary and funny in equal measure. The flash of menace in his eyes when he is defied is a warning for the audience but the characters under his sway wish to appease him instead of fleeing. Interestingly Murata reveals a dark childhood that evokes a degree of sympathy. Like a good existentialist he has overcome his background and lives his own way with his own values however misguided.
Living alongside him is Aiko who is the sexiest psycho ever caught on camera and also profoundly broken. Initially a charming wife she is soon revealed as a sadomasochist. She switches from calm and collected to full-on sex and violence with ease and a slatternly smile. “It’s best to go along with it”, she advises Shamoto at one point before she gets covered in gore. I loved the way she is a sadistic, calculating and capable psycho with no moral bounds. I loved her presence and the way she would deepen her voice and shout, physically accost Shamoto and dominate him. Witnessing Aiko and Murata in their underclothes and rubber boots as they cut up bodies and exchange cute jokes is darkly humorous.
Direction is perfect. Whether it’s the hellish charnel house where bodies are carved up, the neon delights of the fish stores’, the gentle and soothing planetarium that Shamoto escapes into or the scenic mountain that bodies are disposed of, everything is captured brilliantly and it looks and sounds gorgeous. Art direction, sound design, camera movement and actors are marshalled brilliantly.
I had tears in my eyes and a smile on my face by the end, partly because I had just witnessed cinematic brilliance and partly because I had become attached to all of the characters and the journey with them had been moving, hilarious and heart breaking. The film whips by unpredictably and never loosens its grip. Get this film now.
Romaji: Tsumetai Nettaigyo
Release Date: 29th January 2011 (Japan)
Running Time: 144 mins.
Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Sion Sono, Yoshiki Takahashi
Starring: Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Denden, Megumi Kagurazaka, Asuka Kurosawa, Hikari Kajiwara, Tetsu Watanabe, Taro Suwa