When I first started blogging about Japanese movies a couple of months ago, I began back in the 1950s with some of Akira Kurosawa’s best known work. Then I jumped ahead to the ‘60s and ‘70s for some cult classics. Now with Sion Sono’s Cold Fish (2010) we move into the modern era. I’m a big fan of other contemporary Japanese directors but Sono had completely passed me by, and this film was recommended to me as an accessible jumping on point for the work of someone called “the most subversive filmmaker working in Japanese cinema today.”
In the interests of fairness, I should add that I had literally no idea what kind of film I was going to be watching. If, dear reader, you have also avoided any knowledge of Sono’s work or Cold Fish in particular and want the same, baffling experience I had, then consider ceasing to read immediately and go check out the film. Despite the big, bold text shouting THIS IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY during the intro I didn’t even know what genre I was watching, which meant as the early scenes played out, I was under the misapprehension that things would be a kind of family drama, a seedy version of Departures unfolding in a tropical fish shop.
I quickly forgot about that ‘true story’ claim as things started to get complex. Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) runs a modest tropical fish store with his teenaged daughter and second wife, but gets drawn into the world of Murata (Denden), the owner of Amazon Gold – another, massive tropical fish store staffed more like a Hooters than a pet shop. Denden’s Murata is a tour de force performance, switching between creepily affable, pathetically wheedling, and raging anger on a whim. It strongly reminded me of Ben Kingsley’s similarly jarring performance in Sexy Beast.
Murata hires Shamoto’s daughter to work in his store, gets too close to Shamoto’s wife, and drags Shamoto into his shady business dealings. Throughout this, Shamoto is practically asleep. It’s not wooden acting, it just seems he’s barely functioning in the world, and has no idea how to deal with Murata.
At some point things take an abrupt left turn and, while I want to talk about it for the review, I again want to caution anyone who wants an unspoiled experience – though apparently this is most definitely how the movie was marketed. After the first business deal Shamoto helps with, Murata and his wife force Shamoto into the other half of their scheme: killing off their ‘business partners’ and keeping the money. Suddenly the film is absolutely soaked in gore as it goes into excruciating detail into Murata’s method of disposing a corpse so as to make it completely “invisible”. Now complicit, Shamoto’s life tumbles even further out of control as the police, yakuza, and Murata’s money man all get involved.
It wasn’t until the credits rolled that I thought again about that ‘true story’ claim, and something came back to me: not a killer with a tropical fish store, but a serial killer running a kennel. Sure enough, I’d read about Gen Sekine in Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice, which tells a sensational tale of Adelstein chasing down the story for the Yomiuri newspaper. This Japan Times article from 2001 covers the aftermath of the trial, and the basics will be familiar to anybody who’s seen Cold Fish: Sekine poisoned his victims then “cut them up, burned them and scattered the remains in a hilly area and a river”.
Getting back to Cold Fish, I’ve avoided any kind of verdict so far but ultimately, and no pun intended, the film left me cold. Everything from the acting to the cinematography to the incredible, aggressive sound design is fantastic, but I just didn’t enjoy the story. The film runs too long and yet the ending, when Shamoto snaps, feels unearned and unconvincing. I wasn’t shocked, just disappointed. It’s unfortunate that as an introduction to Sono’s work this film didn’t land for me, but given how well everything is constructed, I am more than willing to seek out more from him.
Cold Fish / 冷たい熱帯魚 (Tsumetai Nettaigyo)
Director: Sion Sono
Japanese Release Date
Version Watched: 146 min