Sushi Typhoon – Part 5: Cold Fish

April 20, 2011

Tsumetai nettaigyo (Japan, 2010)

“He will make you pick up the pieces!”

Sion Sono is a strange man. He went from poets to suicide pop, and eventually to his grand work, the 4 hour up-skirt love-story Love Exposure (2008). Then, he delivered a slow moving hospital drama (Be Sure to Share, 2009) – a genre disliked even by the director himself.

Love Exposure and Be Sure to Share marked double dose of love and tears. Personal therapy was needed next. Hook up with some old buddies, kill everyone on screen, and have Sushi Typhoon finance the mess!

Sono’s serial killer film Cold Fish is a bit of a strange fish. Although produced by an exploitation studio, it’s not as splattery as Sushi Typhoon’s standard output (Mutant Girls Squad, Helldriver). Instead Cold Fish is reaching towards mainstream audiences, with domestic and overseas theatrical distribution already in process. And, quite deservedly so, as Cold Fish is one of the best Japanese serial killer films since Vengeance is Mine (1979).

Sono and his scripting partner Yoshiki Takahashi drew inspiration for Cold Fish from the 1993 Saitama murder case. Later sentenced to death for their crimes, the dog breeder couple Gen Sekine and Hiroko Kasama were found guilty of killing four people. Several others around them had gone missing and never found. The bodies were dismembered, burnt, and ashes scattered in forest.

Sono and Takahashi (who is also the graphic designer for Sushi Typhoon) have borrowed several characters and killing methods from real life, but the backgrounds have been re-written. Dog kennel has been turned into a tropical fish store, and much of the focus is on family unit falling apart.

The protagonist is Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), whose troubled daughter is caught shoplifting. Fellow fish dealer Murata (Denden) comes to rescue. He offers Shamoto’s daughter a respectable job, and consoles Shamoto’s young wife. Little by little, he seems to be stealing Shamoto’s entire family.

Sono plays with the opposites of Japanese society here. Murata is the wicked showman and leader persona. Shamoto portrays the humble worker. In a society built on hierarchical status and obligation networks, Shamoto is bound by the honne-tatemae philosophy. He shows gratefulness (the public front, tatemae) to his savior, and hides his real feelings (honne). But there’s a limit to everything, and Shamoto isn’t the strongest man around. It’s only a matter of time when he will break and start developing balls.

Sono throws punches at the Japanese, but the foreigners aren’t safe either. The traditional Japanese status society is not entirely different from certain aspects of Western religious life. For fans of the director it comes as no surprise that when the killings begin, Christian references find their way into the film. In Love Exposure the church stood as an example of institutional authority that sometimes overlooks the individual and common sense. In Cold Fish the references are less obvious, but present. Were Sono a Christian, his films would be easy to interpret as collective accounting on the sins of our fathers.

In Cold Fish the primary criticism would be, however, aimed at the Japanese societal structures. The Christian references are not out of the wind, though. Sono has had his own adventures with cults, and screenwriter Takahashi mentioned borrowing from the Jesus Arch case of the early 1980’s. The notorious cult was reported “seducing” lost Japanese souls into their house of God. The members, of course, were accommodated in a dormitory. In Cold Fish, Murata has a dormitory full of troubled young women he has taken under his wings.

There’s a whole variety of other recognizable Sono moments, too. The drum heavy opening could be from Love Exposure. The family unit falling apart is a regular Sono theme as well. But even then, Cold Fish feels different from most of the director’s films. Compared to his most typical high-atmosphere and somewhat freely structured films, Cold Fish puts notable focus on telling a specific storyline.

Sono’s skill has always been in creating atmosphere and images. Despite thematical and graphic extremes, his films are usually harmonic. In Cold Fish, however, Sono takes the characters to emotional extremes. Denden’s acting is brilliant, but it’s also one step away from over-kill. Sometimes the film crosses the line. There’s too much shouting. The ending would be better were it not so loud. But it comes from Sono’s heart. Cold Fish was his cinematic punching bag for a bad day.

Cold Fish is a heavy piece of cinematic nihilism. It’s also a thoroughly captivating serial killer film – a competent piece by any standards despite small harshness here and there. As typical to Sono, it’s a long movie (144 min) but the length is justified. It’s a character study, and would easily lose important bits were it any shorter.

That is not to say Sono doesn’t play with various pop elements from shock gore to black humor and Megumi Kagurazaka. The famous gravure idol put a countdown to end her former career by appearing in nude photos. A clever man Sono is, he naturally took advantage of this by including a shower scene. These “lighter” bits, however, do little to alter the film’s pitch black spirit.

“You will be victimized!”

(note: I will take a bit of break from posting reviews now. Next week I’m off to Frankfurt / Nippon Connection. When I’m back, I’ll try to wrap up the Sushi Typhoon series with Helldriver and Karate Robo-Zaborgar reviews. じゃな!)

One comment

  1. Thanks, sounds awesome! I’m greatly looking forward to this one; rights have already been sold to German company Rapid Eye Movies, nevertheless I’ll try catching this on the big screen in Frankfurt.

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