Fantastic Fest 2010 Review: COLD FISH

Brian Kelley

by: Brian Kelley
October 7th, 2010

Rating: 4.5/5

Writers: Shion Sono, Yoshiki Takahashi
Director: Shion Sono
Cast: Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Denden, Shinya Tsukamoto, Asuka Kurosawa

Working (loosely) from the details of a real life serial killer case, Shion Sono (no newcomer to violence and insanity in film) has crafted a character study that will at once please and divide longtime fans and Sono “newbies” alike. It is a difficult film to watch at times and even harder to fully process afterwards. For those intimately familiar with Sono’s previous work, the film will open up much more quickly. Those making their first trip into a world crafted by Sono (and first time writing collaborator Yoshiki Takahashi) will be less prepared for what they will witness and feel but by giving in to the themes the film wears very proudly on its sleeve will find the impeccably well-executed film rewarding in unexpected ways.

Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) struggles not only with his fish store business, but in his personal life as well. His wife shows him little affection and completely bans him from physical contact while his daughter consistently disobeys him. In true Sono fashion, on display is a family broken, led by a weak and emotionally impotent father. It is not until Shamoto meets rival fish store owner Murata (Denden) that COLD FISH comes to life. Murata introduces Shamoto to an empire where he is king, ruler of a domain consisting of his wife Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa), other women (including, eventually, Shamoto’s own wife), fast cars, and the world’s most exotic fish. Taking Shamoto under his wing, Murata employs his troublesome daughter and introduces him to a shady business deal he is looking to unleash upon the Japanese fish trading world. When things turn violent and a fish sale ends with poisoning and dismemberment, Shamoto realizes that, as per usual, he is not in control.

Based on the true life events of dog breeder Gene Sekine, wife Hiroko Kasama, and business partner Nagayuki Yamazaki, Sono’s COLD FISH is less interested with hard facts as it is with looking to take a real life horror that obviously spoke to Sono in some way and fitting it into the same alternate reality populated with themes from his previous films (specifically SUICIDE CLUB, NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE and LOVE EXPOSURE). As things progress and Shamoto is passively tossed around the sick and twisted world of Murata and Aiko as their killing spree continues, trademark Sono ideas about the role of the father (Murata takes on a father-like role to Shamoto and his family), the effect of shared fervor (in this case the hunger for power on display by Murata and the pseudo-sexual pleasure Aiko experiences from killing) and, of course, madness are explored. Sono even manages to throw a few jabs at organized religion – dismemberment takes place in an old church with several repeated establishing shots of religious iconography – that comes off as far more subtle than his previous works. It is a seemingly abrupt turn in act three that establishes the true soul of the film and one that combines the spirit of all the themes in which Sono is interested. There is a point where Shamoto ceases to be a passive observer and succumbs to what may be a deep-seated, long dormant impulse he had been using all of his energy to suppress. It is at this moment - a moment when many people may view the film as becoming over-the-top and gross - that COLD FISH turns from a film just directed by Shion Sono into a true Shion Sono film.

Discussing the merits of COLD FISH based on the continued exploration of ideas in his existing body of work is all well and good but also reveals the biggest problem with the film – it may not be enough to endear Sono newcomers to his unique brand of insanity. As mentioned, the first two acts do not truly feel like a Sono film while the final is wholly his. This will prove jarring for many though rewarding for others. When all is said and done it is sadly a bit unbalanced. The direction is consistently beautiful though, the fish store settings providing many playful lighting situations, and the performances, all key, are well-rounded with renowned character actor Denden pulling out every trick in his book to make Murata a completely insane, yet strangely endearing, figure. Likewise, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, ultimately the true star of the film, walks a fine line beautifully where a lesser actor may have failed to truly make his character arc believable. One may not even notice that the first two-thirds of the film are a bit long and slightly repetitive and this is due to the clever, fast-paced editing and bombastic accompanying score that makes things appear to move much more quickly than they actually are. As a technical achievement and collaboration with his filmmaking team, this is Sono’s most assured work.

In the spirit of the film’s title, please forgive this writer a single fish metaphor. Mercury is a substance that biomagnifies meaning, unlike many other substances, it increases in concentration as it is passed through different organisms on the food chain. Mercury specifically and most often makes its way into humans by way of fish, starting with something small like krill, passed on to krill predators such as salmon and then on to tuna, etc. In COLD FISH Sono plays with the infectious properties of madness and shared fervor/obsession in a way very similar to mercury in fish. We have no way of knowing from where the sickness apparent in Murata and Aiko is derived, our journey is focused on Shamoto. While it may take its sweet time getting there, by the time we’re at the point Shamoto makes his change, we are somewhat desensitized to the acts of the killer couple. In a brilliant stroke of character work making COLD FISH one of the best character studies of a killer ever made, we come to realize Shamoto’s true place on the food chain and the true levels of madness to which he has been exposed in a spectacular finale that is sure to shock audiences to the core and truly repulse many. The stakes are settled with one question: Who is the tuna and who is the shark?

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