Written by: Shion Sono, Yoshiki Takahashi
Directed by: Shion Sono
Starring: Makoto Ashikawa, Denden and Mitsuru Fukikoshi
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
How far will you be pushed?
Cold Fish features a story that’s so outrageous that you almost don’t believe it when the blistering opening titles boldly proclaim this to be based on true events. But indeed they are, and, while the film is surely dramatized, a psychotic Japanese pet shop owner and his wife did actually double as serial killers, and the material serves as the basis for yet another stylish, Oriental exercise in epic hyper-violence that's so masterfully deranged that it reveals the savage underbelly to something as innocuous as the Japanese exotic fish industry.
I doubt anyone considers that to be the most cut-throat of industries, but Cold Fish tries to convince you otherwise. At the center is Nobuyuki Syamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), the owner of a modest fish shop who recently remarried after the death of his wife. His daughter disapproves of his new, young bride, so she rebels by shoplifting; upon being caught during her latest attempt, the family is approached by Yukio Murata (Denden), the gregarious proprietor of the biggest fish shop in town. For no apparent reason, he offers to take Syamoto under his wing and even gives his daughter a position at his store. It’s an offer he can’t refuse, so Syamoto accepts and unwittingly becomes entangled in Denden’s psychotic affairs.
Cold Fish will test your patience; while the opening sequence moves with a rat-tat-tat rhythm, it quickly settles in and burns slowly over 140 minutes. For the first forty-five, it’s a film that looks like it could go just about anywhere. Subtle foreshadowing (such as a fish munching on its prey in a tank) point to something sinister on the horizon, but Cold Fish is mostly unsettling because we’ve been trained to distrust someone as weirdly affable as Denden’s Murata. Why else would he casually wander into Syamoto’s life if he didn’t have some sort of ulterior motive? Such an assumption probably says just as much about our expectations, but Cold Fish takes your worst assumptions about humanity and somehow reveals something even worse. It might be another film about a man pushed to embrace a cruel, unrelentingly brutal world, but it’s so bleakly fierce that you dare not turn away.
Denden is especially (and appropriately enough) a force of nature; that’s an overused term to sometimes indicate the forcefulness of a performance, and I think it applies here too since it’s impossible not to be captivated by him. His toothy, unreserved demeanor often borders on hysterical, and it’s as if he’s always attempting to sell something; he’s a guy who not only knows what he wants, but he knows exactly how he’s going to get it. “I always win,” he assures his new right-hand man, something that sounds more threatening than comforting. He’s oddly complex in that he’s so transparent, yet he can put on a show on a whim; when a man comes (with Yakuza entourage in tow) to find his missing brother (who Murata killed), he breaks down into a tearful, pathetic display that’s absolutely convincing. His cold mercilessness is what makes him such a predatory force that sweeps into Syamoto’s life and irrevocably alters it, acting as a catalyst to uncover Syamoto’s own inadequacies and regrets. He takes Syamoto’s wife by force (though she eventually submits), and he kills off anyone who stands in his way, a process of making them “invisible,” to use his own terminology. And the scary thing is that he’s matched by a wife that’s just as crazy and all too willing to help him casually dispose their victims bodies; they’ve even got the process down to a science (which they should since they’ve done it 57 times, a number that rises by the end of Cold Fish).
Syamoto’s reaction to all of this is fascinating. When he’s forced to accompany this madman on one of those body-dumping excursions, he’s reduced to the role of serving coffee as he watches his new boss hack up a body and eventually scatter the remains. He’s obviously terrified but also seems strangely detached, almost as if he’s a mere observer to his crumbling life; we know him to be a bit of a romantic, the type of guy who wants to take his dates to the planetarium. He perhaps looks to the stars simply because his mundane life as a fish salesman is so bleak, and the film’s production design brilliantly captures the dichotomy on display here. Murata’s bright, garish storefront is absurdly overstaffed with buxom, scantily-clad beauties while Syamoto’s abode is dim and grungy, inhabited only by his own wife who is left to sweep up the floors at night. Cold Fish might be one of the wildest stories to ever arrive at the pretty simple point that nice guys finish last, as Syamoto finds himself caught up in a world full of deceit and betrayal, with each person revealing themselves to be just as corrupt as the last. There’s always a bigger fish, indeed.
It’s arguable that Murata’s most unbelievable quality is his belief that he’s actually doing Syamoto a favor. In his own sociopathic way, Murata completely unleashes Syamoto’s repressed Id; about halfway through the film, he’s reduced to shriveling in his car and coldly reciting a planetarium fact about how the world will end in another 4.6 billion years, and you get the sense that the end can’t come soon enough for him. By the end of the film, he’s caked in blood, having been subjected to another round of madcap mayhem that pushes Cold Fish into a purely insane and despairing place that’s littered with eviscerated corpses, whose presence is only outweighed by the staggering regret and disappointment that Syamoto feels for his life. There’s a moment when he’s forced to dump another victim’s guts into a local river, and Murata remarks that he’s made the fish happy, a notion that crystallizes the vicious cycle of Cold Fish. On many levels the fish are at fault; it’s the exotic fish industry that brought these two together for this carnage, and it’s the fish that everything started on a macrocosmic level. They eventually evolved into life forms that eventually gave rise the humanity that continually wreaks havoc upon the planet.
I suppose that’s why the closing shot of Cold Fish pulls back to reveal the planet earth, as it leaves us pondering just what else will be unleashed in the next 4.6 billion years before it finally withers and dies--if it lasts that long in the first place, of course. Calling Cold Fish an allegory or parable is maybe a bit of a reach, but it’s certainly saying a lot about the generally bleak condition of humanity. The film is hugely misanthropic, almost comically so--by the end of it, its streak of black humor almost feels like a defense mechanism. Shion Sono crafts an unexpectedly elegant and visceral tour-de-force out of one of the bleakest molds imaginable; in short, Cold Fish is just a big, bloody ball of craziness that rolls up on you and crushes you under its weight. This genre (read: Asian guys killing each other) feels like it’s been overcooked lately, but this one continues to validate it; you can find Cold Fish on DVD from Bloody Disgusting’s Selects series, which has turned into a solid little line of titles. However, it’s also available in HD via Netflix’s streaming services, where it should be bumped right up to the top of your queue. Buy it!
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