Cold Fish

Inspired by an infamous case of serial murder which took place in the Satima province in 1993 (and is still winding its way through the Japanese courts), cult Japanese director Sion Sono’s macabre serial killer drama Cold Fish is a full-throated, blood-soaked examination of a murder and mayhem in Tokyo.

Meek, bespectacled Shamoto (Mitsuru Kukikoshi) owns a tropical fish shop beside a busy highway in Tokyo. His home life is almost as cold-blooded as his floating stock; his rebellious daughter Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara) despises his second wife Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), while she in turn has become bored with the quiet life they live behind the store. One night, Mitsuko is caught shoplifting in a supermarket but before the manager can call the police, another customer, Murata (Denden) talks him out of it. By coincidence, Murata also owns a tropical fish shop, so invites Shamoto and his family around to take a look at his elaborate set-up. Within a couple of hours, the boisterous Murata has talked mild-mannered Shamoto into a high-priced business deal, arranged a job in his shop for his new partner’s teenage daughter and made a clumsy pass at his lubricious wife.

At first, everyone is pleased with these new arrangements but the over-bearing Murata and his smirking wife Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa) have a sinister ulterior motive. Murata might be a successful businessman but he is an equally adept and ruthless serial killer who boasts of having murdered fifty eight people over the years, sometimes for money and sometimes just for fun. Together with his willing accomplice Aiko, he typically poisons his victims before carefully dismembering their bodies and leaving no forensic traces, a process the killer calls “making them invisible”. Soon, Shamoto has been drawn into the couple’s murderous scheme, blackmailed into helping the killers to dispose of the body of a business investor they have killed for money.

And that’s just the start; it’s gets a lot messier from there. Veteran character actor Denden (who usually cast in comic roles) plays Murata as an explosive extrovert, a charismatic, seductive bully who does whatever he wants, regardless of the cost to others. Timid Shamoto, who spends his free time at the planetarium dreaming of the stars, is harder to get a handle on. Is he just a frightened weakling, easily pushed into doing the unthinkable, or has there been murder in his heart all along? We don’t know for sure because the character doesn’t seem to know, with Sono drawing out the suspense across a nerve-shredding two and a half hours before a jaw-dropping finale.

Not one for the squeamish, Cold Fish takes no quarter yet the film cannot be easily dismissed as just another exploitative genre horror. Amidst all the sleazy carnage Sono mounts a serious exploration of the tensions between obedient Japanese conformity and the sensational thrill of transgressive criminality. The director asks significant questions about the human capacity for evil and carefully analyses his findings. As compelling throughout as it is stomach churning and unsettling, Cold Fish slowly builds into a nightmare of brutality and pain; brilliantly acted, daringly edited and scored with a thunderous soundtrack of crashing drums and squealing violins.

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