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Former poet Sono Sion, easily one of the most consistently interesting and original directors working in the world today, returns with the offbeat serial killer tale “Cold Fish”. Having taken a stab at understated melodrama with the sadly little seen “Be Sure to Share” he again returns to the glorious bombast and excess of his all conquering masterpiece “Love Exposure”, exploring once more themes of family, religion, life, love and modern gender roles in his usual demented style. A wild, gory outing filled with gleeful violence and bizarre poetry, the film is a challenging and philosophical affair that recalls “Suicide Club” and “Noriko’s Dinner Table”. Unsurprisingly, as with most of Sono’s works, the film has proved divisory during its extensive world tour of festivals, though as ever the extreme imagery and content plays a vital part in its theme and meanings rather than having been thrown in for shock value alone.
Based loosely upon a real life incident involving dog breeders in Saitama Prefecture, the film switches its focus to tropical fish sellers, following the meek and useless family man Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi, “Love Exposure”, “Samurai Zombie”), who runs a small shop whilst trying, and generally failing, to maintain his relationships with his second wife Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka, “13 Assassins”) and teenage daughter Mitsuko (up and coming TV actress Hikari Kajiwara). A chance encounter introduces him to fellow fish retailer Murata (popular comedian Denden), who runs a far larger and more successful establishment, staffed by young girls and his strange wife (Asuka Kurosawa, “Memories of Matsuko”). Though Murata seems friendly enough, if a little pushy, everything changes when Shamoto witnesses him brutally murdering an investor and is coerced into helping with the disposal of the corpse. His previously ordered world is turned upside down as Murata pulls him into his life of excess and insanity, at the same time changing forever his role within his own stagnating family unit.
Although the faithfulness of the plot to actual events is probably debatable, “Cold Fish” certainly finds Sono Sion finding great inspiration in the material, drawing from it new ways of tackling his favourite themes. Central to the film is its depiction of Shamoto as an initially lost father and husband figure, emasculated and insignificant, and through this Sono meditates upon weakness, strength and responsibility. Quite deliberately, there’s initially very little to Shamoto as a character or protagonist, and he comes to learn about himself and to grasp his purpose and place in the world as the film progresses, in psychotic, though oddly affecting fashion. Although much of the plot charts his coming out of his shell, he is by no means an everyman pushed too far figure, and the film plays out in entirely unexpected fashion, with countless shifts and surprises along the way to its cathartic, over the top conclusion.
The dynamic between Shamoto and Murata is a tense and ambiguous one, with it never being clear if the killer plans to frame the meeker man, to murder him, or even to take him under his wing. Bullying and humiliation are at the heart of most of the film’s relationships, and Murata makes for an intimidating and threatening figure, not so much due to his predilection for homicide as his success with business, women, money and teenagers. With pretty much everything about his personality and life being bigger and more impressive than that of Shamoto, he makes for a monstrous, cult leader of a figure, underling the premise of so-called strength attracting respect and subservience, almost to a sexualised degree.
The film certainly draws an explicit link between sex and violence, with Murata and his wife becoming aroused by his killings and quite literally rolling around in the gore and guts during several wild, violent and explicit scenes of lovemaking. On top of this there are several horrific murder scenes and moments of eye popping sadism, marking the film as perhaps Sono’s most gruesome to date. However, despite all of this nastiness, the film also shows his usual abstract sense of black humour, and the cruelty is often balanced with slapstick or weirdly light hearted touches of absurdity. Coupled with its resolutely non-judgemental and amoral air, this does mean that the film has many shifts in tone, and might well be bewildering for newcomers to the director or anyone expecting a more conventional serial killer yarn.
Possibly the strangest thing about “Cold Fish”, and what marks it most decisively as another master work from Sono Sion is the fact that despite its incredible excess and abundance of madness, it remains highly philosophical, and in its own way is a deeply personal film, an internal horror show of insecurity exaggerated and thrown up on screen for all to see. Easily one of the best films of the last year, at least for fans of the director and those brave enough to enter his warped world, it stands as yet another classic from Sono, and as a truly original and unique piece of modern cinema.
Shion Sono (director) / Shion Sono, Yoshiki Takahashi (screenplay)
CAST: Makoto Ashikawa
Megumi Kagurazaka … Taeko