Year released: 2010
Directed by: Sion Sono
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Horror/Drama
Mitsuru Fukikoshi as Nobuyuki Syamoto, a timid man who owns a tropical fish shop.
Denden as Yukio Murata, another topic fish salesman who harbours a dark secret.
Asuka Kurosawa as Aiko Murata, the erratic wife of Yukio.
Megumi Kagurazaka as Taeko Syamoto, Nobuyuki’s younger wife.
Hikari Kajiwara as Mitsuko Syamoto, Nobuyuki’s wayward daughter.
Plot summary: Nobuyuki Syamoto’s daughter is caught shoplifting, but is helped out by a generous and charming man, who works his way into Syamoto’s life. This man – Mr. Murata – shares an occupation with Syamoto, and wants to work their businesses together. But he keeps a secret that is waiting to come to the surface, and before Syamoto knows it, he is stuck into something much darker than he could have anticipated.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, we recommend you do that first.
Cold Fish by Sion Sono, is to put it one way, a wild ride. The film builds up some vague expectations in the opening twenty minutes, easing us into the world and introducing the characters. Then, somewhere around the forty-minute mark, everything gets flipped on its head, and the film begins heading down its own unique (and very dark) path.
Coming out two years after Sono’s magnum opus Love Exposure, Cold Fish finds Sono working on a smaller scale, although one that is no less interested in the examination of people and Japanese society. Nobuyuki Syamoto is an everyman; he’s reserved, has a dysfunctional family (his daughter hates his second wife to the point of physical abuse, which he seems to turn a blind eye to), and owns a small tropical fish store. His life is far from perfect, but he seems unwilling to do anything about it. His daughter Mitsuko is caught shoplifting, but through the intervention of one Mr Murata, the shop manager lets her off, and Murata invites her to start working at his shop – a much larger tropical fish store to her father’s. Murata is charming, and at first seems to be a classic Japanese gentlemen, manners overflowing and generosity in spades.
However, it is not long until things change. Murata seduces Syamoto’s wife, and seems to know exactly why their marriage is failing. He then invites Syamoto to his store to act as his business partner – he is trying to sell a man a supposedly incredibly rare fish for ten million yen. It seems like a con – as the audience, we expect Murata to play this con against the gullible Syamoto and steal his money. But that is not what transpires; instead, Murata poisons the man he is trying to sell the fish to, and his personality shifts dramatically, screaming at Syamoto and telling him that he works for him now, and that he will help Murata and his wife dispose of the body. He takes him up to a house near Mount Fuji that used to belong to his father, and tells him that he was repeatedly abused there. Then, Murata and his wife dismember the body whilst Syamoto cowers in the other room. This tonal shift is sustained for the rest of the film; we find out that Murata has murdered over fifty people, and has made them all “invisible”, i.e. disposed of them so well that they will never be found.
And so begins the main narrative of the film: Syamoto is caught up in the sex and murder of Murata’s life, being forced to co-operate under the threat of his wife and daughter’s life.
Cold Fish contains Sono’s fantastic cinematography: it is subtle and understated, and the characters are usually kept centre-frame; the camera flows naturally and he does not waste multiple shots when he can just keep the camera rolling and focus on the reactions of the characters. The stark brutality of Murata’s actions are never shied away from, nor are any of the many sexual acts witnessed in the film. We are taken through every step of Murata’s process of elimination, from the act of murder to the scattering of the ashes; we understand how he has not been caught, as professional as he is. We are in Syamoto’s shoes for the entirety of the film, sometimes even literally, through POV shots; we understand his fear, but ultimately his craven attitude to the proceedings uncover him as a weak and spineless man, one who cannot stand up for himself, let alone his own family.
But by the end of the film, everything has changed; Syamoto is near-unrecognisable to the quiet, polite (and constantly bowing) man we were introduced to. Cold Fish is, in many ways, an examination of repressed violent and sexuality appetites in Japanese society; like the English-language DVD cover asks, what drives an ordinary man to murder? The need to act is within Syamoto, but he pushes it down so far that when it finally boils over, it is unstoppable and without mercy.
WARNING: More detailed spoilers regarding the ending follow.
I found this film hard to watch for most of the 2hr 25m runtime. Syamoto’s willingness to be pushed around, and his inability to sort out his personal life, frustrated me to no end, and Murata’s controlling personality and psychotic outbursts kept me feeling anxious throughout. The film has incredible pacing, considering its length – it doesn’t feel like a nearly 2 and a half hour film at all; Sono pulled off a similar trick with Love Exposure, and I’m not entirely sure how he does it. The film’s length and pace are important to the story, too: he is deliberately frustrating the audience by showing you the breadth of the horrors that Syamoto has to endure so that when he finally snaps, it is all the more believable and shocking.
It is after he is forced to have sex with Murata’s wife post-murder-cleanup that he finally breaks, which takes place after a confrontation between Murata and Syamoto where Murata calls him out as the weak-willed man the world sees him to be. This combination of events, plus the revelation that Murata seduced his wife earlier in the film, finally gives Syamoto the drive to break out of the situation and enact revenge on Murata – this is the type of moment in a film where you cheer inside, pleased that our hero is finally going to take control of his life and forge his own happy ending, or at least a bittersweet one. No luck here, though; Sono is in a truly nihilistic mode for this film, and Syamoto’s decision to act leads only to brutality, heartbreak and death, which I feel is a statement about repression in Japanese society. Syamoto has archetypal elements, for example his extreme politeness and humbleness; Sono seems to be saying that under this mask, all kinds of hatred is seething, and that the way that this is being dealt with by society is damaging the archetypal Family; by the end of the film, Syamoto has raped his wife and beaten his daughter unconscious, and then, later, stabs his wife when she tries to reconcile with him. He then tells his daughter that “life is pain” and kills himself, leaving Mitsuko to scream at his dead body. The “life is pain” lines betrays that Syamoto has never been happy, and that this violent side to him has always been there, waiting to escape; his refusal to accept this shadow side destroys him, his wife, and probably his daughter too, with enough time.
I wasn’t sure if I liked Cold Fish prior to the final half-hour. Its relentless nastiness and cruelty to its main character just made me feel depressed. After Syamoto killed Murata I was back into it, fully sold on its darkness; I realised that it was going to pay off after all (initially I was worried that Murata would win and end up killing Syamoto and his family). But I wasn’t expecting it to go as far as it did; Syamoto covers a lot of ground with his dark actions in a small space of time, and I feel like the extremity really worked with what the film was saying. I found Syamoto’s journey believable, more believable than if he had just killed Murata and saved the day; instead of a simple thriller story where the good guy wins or loses, the film presented a detailed examination of violence and sexuality through its characters, one which reflects its society with a critical eye. Sono is clearly a very talented director who cares for his characters, even if their fates are tragic.
I would highly recommend Cold Fish to anybody who is a fan of Japanese cinema and/or psychological horrors/thrillers. The gore is quite extreme and detailed, but in my opinion it isn’t anything that anybody who’s seen a bit of gore before couldn’t handle, and it always serves the story. The acting is incredible all-round, especially from the male leads; the cinematography and photography is beautiful (the shots of Mount Fuji in particular are stunning); the score is appropriately tense (or brilliantly anachronistic: the surf-y music playing in Murata’s shop gets more ironically humorous every time it features). The story elements converge perfectly towards the end, and Sono provides the viewer with a satisfying, albeit quite depressing, experience, and one that will stick with you long after the credits finish.
When Sono was interviewed about this film, he stated that Japanese films aren’t hopeless enough. I now know why he made this film the way it is. The bleak hopelessness that’s strewn across the intricate web of this films narrative, left a bad taste in my mouth for for the first 1 and a half hours. the unpredictability left you anxious and on edge as you couldn’t trust what Murata or Aiko were going to do next and how much hardship Syamoto was going to still endure. though in the tense ending of the film my anxiousness was washed away, with my eyes clued to the tragic events unfolding before me.
In a sense we could see this Coldfish as a coming of age film. Symoto must grow up from the weak man that he is and face the harsh realities of his life. the situation he is in is all because he is weak and powerless. The film has a strong theme of parent and child relationships. We have Syamoto and Mitsuko, that we are being directly show, but also we are told about Murata and his father and given a slight inkling to Aiko’s father too. during the final confrontation between Murata and Syamoto, Murata keeps telling Syamoto to treat him like a father figure. the person responsible for his growth and eventual change from week to strong. Just like how a true parent raises their own child.
I also feel that Cold Fish is in someway a reaction to Sino’s experience making Love Exposure. Just like the theme of parent and child, a film can be thought of as a directors child. they nurture it in pre-production all the way to post. they spend time and energy crafting and melding a film together into a final product. Syamoto states at the end “Life is pain” before killing himself. this line made me remember something Sino said in the DVD extras, making of, for Love Exposure. “Everyday is suffering”. This was in reference to making the film. So I feel like his experience in suffering through a parent and child style relationship has brought upon the ideas he has built within Coldfish.
Overall Coldfish is a nerving and thrilling film that takes you on a dark journey into human weakness and breaking point. Sino’s direction is masterful once again. this is a definite watch for anyone looking for a Japanese film, or any film for that matter.