Director Shion Sono has claimed that his film is loosely based on a true story, that of dog breeder Gen Sekine who was convicted along with his wife for murdering four people and discarding the pieces of their burnt and dismembered bodies in forests and lakes. Those familiar with Sono’s work will know that sticking to convention is not exactly his thing – his previous film, Love Exposure, was four hours long – and this is a far from conventional take on the story. Dog kennels are no longer at the heart of the action, replaced by tropical fish shops.
The volume of murders balloons from four victims to over sixty, albeit with the vast majority of them having already occurred by the start. The story itself becomes an allegory for the spread of madness, the place of the submissive male in Japanese society, broken families and religion. Did I happen to mention that it also features a fight scene where neither participant can so much as stand up due to the quantity of blood on the floor, a man beaten to death with a television and a nymphomaniac sadist psychopath of a wife who acts like Xenia Onatopp turned up to eleven?
My best attempt at describing Cold Fish would be as one third family drama, one third Toei pinku violence (for further reading: Female Convict Scorpion; Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs; Sex & Fury) and one third Asian Extreme blacker-than-black comedy. Or better yet, I wouldn’t bother describing it at all and would instead suggest that if you’re a fan of lunatic sentiments of the Takashi Miike ilk – at least before he went all genre filmmaker on us with Thirteen Assassins – this should be immediately pushed to the top of your ‘to watch’ list.
Shamoto, played by Mitsuro Fukikoshi, is a meek tropical fish salesman whose daughter loathes him and who resents her back for not being able to make out with his beautiful young wife while she’s around, but also feels guilty for not being able to provide his family with the life he thinks they deserve. The answer to all his problems arrives in the shape of Murata and his wife, the owners of a more glamourous fish shop who offer to take his daughter off his hands after she’s caught shoplifting in addition to a potentially lucrative partnership breeding rare fish from the Amazon. Shamoto is naturally cautious but enters into the deal after encouragement from his own wife, played by buxom former bikini model Kagurazaka Megumi, only to find himself embroiled with a serial killer and his eager assistant wife who blackmails him into helping them with their murders.
At just under two and a half hours long, Cold Fish is a considerable scale back from Sono’s previous film but still a hefty commitment. Fortunately, Sono packs that time with so many off-kilter twists and directs with such untamed energy that so much as blinking will feel like a loss. His direction is kinetic and the mise-en-scene produces just as many vividly surreal images as the writing does situations, but at no point feels obtrusive or out of place. It’s easy in retrospect to see that there’s material in the first two acts that could have been sacrificed to cut down the running time, but Sono produces an experience so compelling that the notion of making it shorter comes across as sacrilegious in the extreme.
It’s not often that a 145-minute film makes you yearn for more once it’s over, but Cold Fish‘s escalating levels of derangement have a heavy comedown once you’re thrown back into the banality of everyday life. Sono sends the senses spinning like a yoyo, from his vivid use of colour contrasting the rainbow beauty of the fish shops against the stark red of a blood-drenched tiled floor, the tumultuous and sometimes deliberately anachronistic score, or throwing in hysterically dark sight gags in the middle of the most unsettling moments of violence.
As much fun as it is, this is far from a stupid film: the insanity that takes over from about the halfway mark works so well because the time is taken beforehand to establish clear identities for the off-kilter world in which the story will unfold and its characters, played with magnificent zeal by the entire cast, especially Denden and Akusa Kurosawa who revel in their roles as a mentally seismic serial killer couple. The writing is also layered into an acerbic critique of Japanese society and asks questions of whether psychopathy is born or created, although these points are utterly irrelevant until after the end credits. The best way of experiencing the film is simply to throw yourself into its current and be swept away and tossed around at its whim. You’ll emerge exhausted but exhilarated and never look at fish swimming peacefully around a canal in quite the same way again.