Cold Fish – Review

by Miguel Douglas


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Shamoto is the nerdy proprietor of a store dealing in tropical fish. Shamoto’s home life isn’t especially happy — his second wife, Taeko, has a sharp tongue and an eye for other men, while his teenage daughter, Mitsuko, has little use for either of them. One night, Mitsuko is picked up for shoplifting at a supermarket, but another customer, Murata, unexpectedly steps in to help. Murata, who owns a much larger fish store, offers to give Mitsuko a job, and Shamoto is grateful for his help. However, before long Mitsuko is literally living in Murata’s store, and Shamoto suspects his new friend is not as benevolent as he first thought — a notion confirmed when Murata and his wife, Aiko, trick Shamoto into cleaning up the scene of a murder they’ve just committed.

Director Sion Sono’s films have always offered a look into the bizarre, tragic and horrific recesses of the human condition. Whether this is seen in his take on a mass suicide cult in Suicide Club (2002), the shocking hallucinatory imagery of incest explored in Strange Circus (2005), the disintegration of the family structure in Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005) and his 4-hour opus on perverted relationships in Love Exposure (2008), Sono has often explored a large variety of controversial themes within his films that have established him as a director that isn’t afraid to the push the boundaries of cinema to its utmost extreme. Because of this willingness to explore such extremities, Sono has developed a considerable following as a director whose films are as creative as the talent behind them. This has often categorized Sono as a director who is able to show a grasp of multiple genres when creating his films. Ranging from action, horror, comedy and drama—and in many cases a culmination of several of them—Sono has developed a style of filmmaking that has remain distinctively his, consistently bringing forth new and interesting twists on seemingly tired concepts. With his latest film Cold Fish, Sono has once again decided to explore the dark recesses of humanity, this time loosely basing the narrative around the true-life “Saitama serial murders of dog lovers”, a series of four gruesome murders carried about by dog-breeder Gen Sekine and his ex-wife Hiroko Kazama in 1993.

Perhaps more appropriately associated with his previous films, Cold Fish provides a character study of an individual negatively influenced by his oppressive surroundings. In fact, many of the thematic elements explored within Sono’s previous films make their return within Cold Fish, whether it’s viewed in the perversion of religion, disgruntled relationships or even the questioning of societal ideals—they’re all expressed within the film. With such critical material to be found throughout the narrative, Sono once again is able to elicit a comedic stance on many of the scenes of carnage and bodily destruction shown here. This certainly alleviates the film from becoming entirely too horrific in its showcasing of gruesome disembowelments, stabbings, poisonings and slicings. Granted, the imagery in Cold Fish is extremely disturbing—perhaps Sono’s most savage usage since Suicide Club—but unlike that particular film, it never feels unwarranted here. It’s this realistic prose that garners the film a significant grounding as being an authentic—albeit somewhat humorous—examination on the notion of the “serial killer”. Many of the elements that go into being a serial killer are showcased here—whether its quietly killing an individual, disposing of the body, evading questioning from local authorities and even the effects it has on someone unaccustomed to viewing such atrocious actions, the film takes us throughout the entire process and subsequent consequences of murder. The film slowly explores the disastrous developments to the human psyche as one continually views or partakes in homicidal actions—which provide a relatively genuine look into how such exposure can turn a cowardly man into a monstrous force of destruction.

Working as a character study, the film’s narrative is explicitly shown through its lead character. Mitsuru Fukikoshi gives a fantastic performance as the timid Mr. Shamoto, a man complacent with his current livelihood and rather abnormal family situation. Never truly stepping up and being the proper head of the household, Fukikoshi’s character is viewed as an individual afraid to express his honest opinion to others and literally lets people dominate him. Fukikoshi appropriately showcases the subtle shifts in attitude and mannerisms as one would expect given his sudden introduction to murder, and the end results are certainly surprising as well as devastating. The character of Mr. Murata, played even more masterfully by Denden, encapsulates this development of destructive behavior to an almost absurd degree. Establishing a ruthless portrayal of a man seriously gone awry, Denden delivers a frightful yet comedic take as a serial killer bent on controlling the people around him for the purpose of bettering solely himself. Definitely showcasing the ego-driven and power hungry philosophy often expressed within the psychological state of a serial killer, Denden’s portrayal of Murata provides the catalyst for Shamoto’s fall from grace.

It’s this psychological juxtaposition between these two characters that ultimately makes the film intriguing to watch. As the two form a relationship grounded on fear, rejection and death, the escalating violence soon begins to disrupt the boundaries of Murata’s sanity. There is a sense of absolute dread that permeates throughout the film as we witness the unfair indoctrination of a man, and one can slowly begin to expect the worse to come to fruition. In a strange occurrence though, Sono establishes a narrative for us as viewers to sympathize with the predicament that Shamoto begins to find himself in, and in a rather strange way, we also sympathize with his actions as he begins his psychological breakdown. While the first half of the film plays out as a vehicle to showcase the calculated efforts that Murata must undertake in order to murder and dispose of his victims—in his words, to make someone “disappear”—the film’s second half spirals into utter madness as carnage is brutally unleashed in the most unexpected ways. This is where the film may become a little too eccentric for some viewers, but Sono’s unconventional approach is seemingly warranted given the circumstances that the characters have undergone throughout the film. Illuminating us to the human psyche and the perception of learned behavior, Sono delivers an unrelenting portrayal of what drives some individuals to murder when pushed to the utter edges of human depravity, where savagery seems like the only eerily plausible solution.

Ultimately, Cold Fish is another fine examination by astute director Sion Sono. Given the subtlety of his previous film Be Sure to Share (2009), Sono once again returns to the realm of the peculiar with Cold Fish, in turn delivering a surprisingly unwavering tale of murder, greed and psychological torment. It’s interesting to see Sono explore such a disturbing topics with comedic ease, but he do so quite effectively here and it makes the film all the more captivating. Inverting the stereotypical serial killer genre that is often present in other films, Cold Fish pushes further to asks us to understand the reasons that people are pushed to murder another human being—whether it may stem from money, bullying or sheer desperation. It’s interesting to see Sono tackle such serious material while still remaining relatively unique in its execution, with Cold Fish once again showcasing Sono’s presence as one of Japan’s foremost directors as of late.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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  • Nano

    I bought this movie looking forward to watch it. When I got it and started the movie, it was a huge disappointment. I couldn’t get to the end of the movie because of the exaggerated horror scenes. I thought these scenes were not necessary and did not add any value to the movie or story line. Though this movie had a strong story but the way it was portrayed was not matchable. Do not waste your time watching this movie. Thanks

  • Gameday J

    Got to love Sion Sono !
    Very timid indeed lol I can honestly say i didnt know what to expect with this film. What a shock to the system. I felt that some crazy turn of events were bound to take place. Denden just couldnt take sitting back getting this abuse from all directions. Diffidently an interesting watch something i was unprepared for. Lesson of the day , dont walk all over the little guy.. anyways ~

    Great review , in depth as always and indeed another fine examination of Mr Sion Sono ! These must be fun for you to review my friend.

  • Miguel Douglas

    I love the tension and suspense the film built over the course of events, with Shamoto slowly developing into a mad man. You just knew something was eventually going to be the last straw for him.