Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Fish Rots From the Head Down

Let me start with "This is a great fucking film" because it's the most adequate, all-encompassing  piece of praise I can think of.

Two weeks ago, I rose at 5 am and quickly  prepared a breakfast of Quinoa Flakes, blueberries, stevia, pineapple, and hemp milk. Excited, I slipped the (British) Third Window Films' Blu-ray into my player, took a seat, dug my spoon into the Quinoa, and waited for Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo, 2010), the second latest film from Japan's Sion Sono, to unfold.

Would it remain a film, as most do, or would it bolt from the pack and become an experience?

Before I placed the empty, blueberry-stained bowl on the tray beside me at 5:22 am, the film had already become an experience and more.

On the rear sleeve of the Blu-ray, it is described as "a psychotic cavalcade of sex, violence, and comedy".  It's much more than that, of course, but a little simplification doesn't go astray now and then. Director Sono's skill is in balancing the elements and building a strong foundation for them that is his characters.

 There's no arguing that Sono has found some very strong ones in this deliciously vile outing.  

The launching place for Cold Fish is a true story known as "The Saitama serial murders of dog lovers". A married couple, both professional dog breeders, sold overpriced dogs to a variety of people, including some yakuza types. When it became apparent that they'd been ripped off by the breeders, the unhappy customers complained. The couple addressed these complaints with murder. It's said that they murdered at least ten people.

In the script by Sion Sono and Yoshiki Takahashi (who also designed the striking, Straw Dogs-inspired poster art), the dog breeders have become fish breeders, and the climax has been changed completely. But according to crime journalist Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice,  the film follows the tenor and details of the original crimes very closely -- at least up to the point where it veers into very different thematic territory.

Shamato, who runs a tropical fish shop with his second wife, is put at a disadvantage when his bratty daughter, Mitsuko, is caught shoplifting. When it seems likely that the store's angry manager will call the police, a kind stranger (fish shop entrepreneur Murata), intervenes on the girl's behalf and smooths matters with the manager, negating police intervention. This apparent act of kindness turns Shamato into grateful, humbled putty in Murata's murderous hands.

The original killers, Gen Sekine and Kirokoo Kazama, become Murata (played with chilling conviction and humor by Denden) and his wife Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka) here. Like Sekine, Murata  is a charming, charismatic rogue whose ability to manipulate those around him is a wicked joy to witness. As audience members, we know where it's all heading, but it's the machinations of his manipulation that are so fascinating. His greatest skill lies in forming bonds separately with each member of Shamato's family. Mitsuko, for one, detests her father and stepmother. When Murata offers to drive her home in his shiny red sports car, he encourages her to disparage her father in the meanest, most disrespectful way. This encouragement endears Murata to her, and puts her at ease with him (all the better to molest her later). Not too much later, Murata catches Shamato's wife Taeko in a vulnerable moment and deviously molests her, groping her breasts and crotch. When he drops her home after an afternoon of lurid intimacy, it's clear that he opened a door into Taeko's psyche (and body) that Shamato lost the key to long ago.

In a series of brilliant master strokes, the shockingly brazen Murata takes informal custody of Mitsuko, endears himself to Taeko, and involves Shamato in a murderous spree from which the psychologically beaten husband and father feels incapable of escaping.

I'm loathe to reveal too many more plot developments, of which there are plenty, because Cold Fish's plot surprises are just some of its bountiful joys; even greater joy, for me, at least, is derived from its approach to sexuality and thorough examination of what asserting your true nature actually means.

Not since directors Masaru Konuma (Wife To Be Sacrificed, Erotic Diary of an Office Lady) and Norifumi Suzuki (Beautiful Girl Hunter, School of the holy Beast) has a Japanese filmmaker approached the subject of  sexuality (and violence) as freshly and thoughtfully as Sono. Although he doesn't make what anybody would call "pink films", he incorporates pink film elements such as extreme fetishism and sadomasochism seamlessly into his scenarios.

Outside of pornography, sexuality and its broader expression (fetishism) is usually bundled (lazily) into the "perversion" basket. For mine, "perversion" is an abstract moral judgment of a particular sexual act provoked subconsciously by religious dogma. It's a meaningless word flung around by repressed, terrified, immature idiots who wouldn't know a human psyche from a hole in the ground. Because "perversion" is used in the West as a banner for sexual acts outside the "norm" (read: admitted to), and has negative religious associations, we're rarely treated to a thought-provoking, Western exploration of it. In Japan, where Christianity hasn't hijacked young minds and old ways, sex is more easily explored for the brilliant, shattering, euphoric force it can be (if you're game). In one of Cold Fish's most mind-blowing sequences, a violent confrontation between Murata and a yakuza gang is intercut with Murata's wife groping the hired help in a nearby closet. The juxtaposition of two forms of fiery passion (anger and lust) creates an atmosphere rarely seen or felt in cinema, and the impact on the viewer is incendiary (on this viewer, anyway). The audaciousness of the scene reminded me of Sono's previous film, Love Exposure  (reviewed on this blog), a work that explored fetishism, romance, and the dangers of religious faith.... and, like Cold Fish, balanced the often disparate elements with unbridled skill and gleeful abandon.

When Cold Fish detours from its source, it does so to address thematic issues. From the outset, its hero Shamato is a beaten man. Tensions between his daughter and her stepmother are high. Shamato has lost control of them, their mutual hatred a gulf in the family home.  Murata's intervention into their lives is not initially an unwelcome one. It rattles the family, wakes them from their domestic slumber, gives them an pronounced electric charge. Naturally, heaven turns to hell (which is simple physics), and Shamato's feeble grasp on everything becomes more pronounced. Eventually, he becomes Murata's puppet, more an abused son than a business colleague, and his unassertive ways threaten to bury him (literally). And then there's the detour, where the true story falls away and Sono asserts his theme.

The detour is about Shamato gaining control. I hesitate to write "regaining" because I'm not sure if he ever had it. In Japan, there is an entire genre of literature about fathers being beaten up by their wives and children; "Stupid Dad" is one of these. To varying degrees, the Dads of this genre are idiots (?) who work all day and have no relationship with their children. Their lives are of servitude to spoiled ingrates. For their efforts, they gets punished. For performing the traditional "duty" of bread winner, they get hung, burnt, stabbed, and dismembered. In Cold Fish, Shamato is Sono's "Stupid Dad", a man physically and psychologically beaten by the people he's supposed to protect. Unable to moderate the war between the two fighting females in his household, he's retired to a room in his head where the weather conditions outside can not touch him. When Murata enters Shamato's life, Shamato is happy to pass the "Stupid Dad" baton to him. When Shamato finally takes the baton back, the result is bloody and somewhat surprising. Not only does Shamato confront his abuser, but he asserts his fatherly role via several brutal acts of violence against his own family. These acts provide an incredible catharsis for him and the viewer, and represent a full reversal of the "Stupid Dad" genre.

For me, what makes Cold Fish great is its original, ballsy approach to hot material. It takes a line and walks it. It doesn't stop along the way to fuck, piss, protest, or suck a producer's dick. That's rare.

 Enthusiasts for Fred and Rose West (I know you're out there!) and the Moors Murderers (you, too!) will find much gristle to chew on here.

An interesting tidbit ripped from the Blu-ray extras is that the yakuza were instrumental in the conviction of the real life murderers. Their unconventional interview methods uncovered information the police couldn't. 


The Third Window Films Blu-ray of Cold Fish is a stellar presentation of the work.

Extras include an interview with co-writer Yoshiki Takahashi and crime journalist Jake Adelstein, who once met the actual murderers the film is based on.


  1. This film looks and sounds amazing! You can imagine how happy I am to know that it will be available on region 1 DVD 8/23/11. So I can actually watch it!


    Thanks for an amazing review as always ;)

  2. Toxaemia -- I suspect you will enjoy this movie very much.

    BTW, there are US-based sellers of multi-region Blu-ray players. With a multi-region, no waiting for US releases. Recently, many films are getting UK releases and no US release at all (or a long time afterwards). If you want some more info, email me.

  3. New to this entire genre of movie, but your review has peaked my interest quite a bit and I look forward to finding it somewhere so I can 'experience' it too - Thanks!

  4. I appreciate your take on the western view of sexuality. But I once heard of a Jew caught eating pork buns at a chinese restaurant. His excuse: "guilt is a great condiment." Sometimes a really unhealthy view of sex is a good thing. It turns sex into decadent junk food, and everyone involved to sugar fiends. Good times.

  5. Origin -- enjoy the genre. This is as good a place to start as any. Look around my blog and you'll find plenty more. This blog exists because I like to share what excites me.


    Mac -- Good story, and, yes, "sometimes" an unhealthy view is a good thing. In the long term, I prefer my passions without guilt.

  6. jimmie t. murakamiJuly 7, 2011 at 7:18 PM

    Phantom, once again the phrase "sexual perversion" is only in use because we are still living in "THE TIME OF SEXUAL REPRESSION", when that hideous period of history is brought to a thankful and merciful end the phrase "sexual perversion" will have no meaning or resonance with-in our society what-so-ever.

  7. Great review Phantom, I found it quite hard to know how much to give away in my review and maybe erred on the side of caution a little too much, I think you have a much better balance. It is a great film and one as you say with much to chew on!

  8. OMG I adore your taste in Pulp and Cold Fish is now a MUST on my "to watch" list! It is really nice to see films that don't kiss Hollywood ass. For instance, the new Alice In Wonderland movie that Disney made was a nice take off on the original story but full of fluff and it wasn't even fully 3D! This movie was suppose to come out produced by Wes Craven (not by Disney studios either) and was going to be a take off on the American McGee's Alice video game which is legendary for it's dark violent game theme. Sarah Michelle Gellar was going to star as Alice and I was sooooo looking forward to it!! I still think "someone" should do this bloody gore fest of Wonderland, it would finally take AIW somewhere it hasn't been before. Of course there's other movies out there made like AIW but none that I know of like this was going to be. I'll never know how the movie got changed and made by Disney but I have my guesses. Do you know anything about the movie that wasn't made or why Phamton? Sorry I've been so busy lately but I'm glad to be back to catch up with you my friend. It's Friday so have a rip roaring weekend! ♥

  9. By the way Phantom, how do you feel about Dexter on Showtime? I love it and have read all 3 books but I do wish someone would make a movie from the books instead to give me something to bite my teeth into! I'm only sorry there was only 3 books and not more. Hugs to you! ♥

  10. Bekkie -- I've not seen enough of DEXTER to post an informed opinion. I read one book and enjoyed it a lot.

    From your comments, I take it the series is a little soft and falls short for you?

    I'm heartened that COLD FISH has landed on your "watch" list. Vi-de well, little sister, vi-de well! Personally, I detested Tim Burton's ALICE, even though I liked some of the designs. I'm not a Burton fan at all, and find his movies very poor overall and very stop-start. That said, ED WOOD is one of my favorite films of all time. But it is the script and performances that make it so special, and I think a number of directors could have directed it. I would have loved to see a Joe Dante or Jonathan Demme version -- or even a Herzog take.

    I don't think we can ever expect an edgy movie from Disney because edgy is not their mission. Why ALICE turned into the rot it did is anybody's guess. I just know that Burton has a lot of power and appeared to exercise none of it to make ALICE a worthwhile indulgence. But, frankly, I don't think Burton is a good judge of story. He's primarily a visualist, and only excels when his scripts are tight and character-based. SLEEPY HOLLOW was another mess, despite the occasional flourish of note.

  11. Hi Mr. Pulp thanks for the review.