Sion Sono’s “Cold Fish” (冷たい熱帯魚) – 2010 Tokyo FILMeX Review

One look at the true story that inspired “Cold Fish,” Sion Sono’s first feature since his four-hour epic “Love Exposure,” quickly reveals that this is not a movie for the faint of heart.  In 1993, Gen Sekine, a dog breeder and pet shop owner in Japan’s Saitama Prefecture, and his wife Hiroko Kasama poisoned several customers when financial transactions went awry, then took to dismembering their corpses and exterminating the remains, burning some and scattering the rest in a nearby wooded area and river.  Sono took this story, turned the serial killers into tropical fish breeders, and injected several plot lines to transform “Cold Fish” into an unsettling dissection of the human psyche.

Shamoto (played by Mitsuru Fukikoshi) owns a modest tropical fish shop, is married to Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka) and has a daughter, Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara).  To say that the relationship is strained between the repressed husband, the young mini-skirted wife and the rebellious daughter is an understatement, and it is a chance encounter with another schmoozy fish breeder, Murata (Denden), that may very well reverse their fortunes.  Murata’s glittering Amazon Gold Tropical Gold Fish Center represents, to Taeko and Mitsuko, the financial security that they do not have and to Shamoto, a professional achievement that is impossible to attain.  Developments, however, seem to be too quick and too good to be true when Mitsuko is snatched away to work at Murata’s shop, and Shamoto and Taeko are immediately drawn into the world of Murata and his wife Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa) with extremely disastrous consequences to follow.

“Cold Fish,” on the surface, appears to be a 146-minute bloody gore fest full of knives, guts, sex, drugs and violence, but underneath it is a story about a man’s descent into “total hopelessness” – a theme Sono said “was lacking in Japanese films” today.  In this case, this man is not Murata the perpetrator – he has already justified his outrageous actions as a means to a better existence – but Shamoto the forced accomplice.  In playing Shamoto, a man who has failed personally and professionally, actor Fukikoshi adeptly switches gears after his character is pushed beyond his breaking point; be it in silence or rage, Shamoto proves to be toxic to his own family and ultimately everyone around him.

Aside from Fukikoshi – who blindly took on the part of Shamoto after a chance encounter with Sono – the rest of the cast is equally stellar, and most took on their respective roles as a way to challenge themselves.  The 18-year-old Kajiwara as sulking Mitsuko was simply happy to work with such distinguished colleagues.  Kurosawa saw the role of sex-obsessed Aiko as a way to get back into shape after giving birth to three sons, even worrying to Sono about whether she would be fit enough for the role.  Denden, who said that he normally plays good guys, thought that being Murata would give him a chance to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, and he nails the role with gusto.  (The Murata character also resonated with Sono, who said that in real life, he himself was conned by a man who talked him out of a lot of money; it is perhaps why Sono considers “Cold Fish” to be his “most personal” of his films so far.)

“Cold Fish” is not an easy film to sit through, yet despite all the graphic content, there were actual moments of wry, yet not uncomfortable, laughter from the audience – this reviewer included – throughout at a plot that was over-the-top, but not so beyond belief to be completely implausible.  When this collective reaction was mentioned to Sono after the screening, he was initially puzzled, then responded: “There’s humor and comedy in all tragedy – I wasn’t intending to make people laugh,” adding that he merely “tried to be true to the script.”  He then mused, “The more unpredictable the laughter, [I suppose] the more interesting [the film] might be.”

The Japan premiere of Sion Sono’s “Cold Fish” took place Nov. 27 at the 2010 Tokyo FILMeX International Film Festival.  Previously it screened in Venice, Toronto and Pusan, among other film festivals.

Video: Q&A with “Cold Fish” director Sion Sono

Sion Sono talks about the background, theme and imagery in “Cold Fish,” his feature film about a serial killer and his forced accomplice, at the Tokyo FILMeX International Film Festival on Nov. 27, 2010.

video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine