Cold Fish Review
If you felt that the four hour marathon of Sion Sono’s acclaimed Love Exposure was too gruelling an experience, then at first glance you might feel that the relatively efficient 2 hours and 26 minutes of his new vehicle, Cold Fish, would be a simple, short sprint in comparison. And whilst Sono’s visually enriching output moves at a pace which is both exhilarating and a wonderful disguise for the total running time, don’t expect to be let off the hook, as his new picture is challenging, controversial, and unflinchingly violent.
Sono’s stylistic intentions are clear from the off. In the opening sequence, a Japanese lady marches past supermarket shelves, carelessly tossing in the fast food she will shortly prepare for the family meal. As the musical score thumps along energetically in the background, the screen is splashed with words informing us that the picture is a Sion Sono film, and is based upon a true story. The scene relocates to a modest and worn kitchen, and the camera chases the fast moving hands of the lady as she prepares the evening meal with robotic speed. Sono takes the mundane, and converts it into something fast-moving and exciting, and it’s a testament to the energetic pacing of his film that when the full 'introduction' finishes and the film's title appears, we are already 21 minutes into the picture.
Cold Fish is based upon the true tale of a serial killer and his wife, whose crimes shocked Japan in the early nineties. Known as the ‘Saitama serial murders of dog lovers’, the case involved a specialist dog breeder and his wife who poisoned victims standing in their way for one reason or another; often because they had complained after being scammed out of money for certain dog breeds. Sono maintains many of the facts and characteristics of the original case, but switches the central element of dog breeding, replacing this with the world of rare fish, and this decision provides an excellent opportunity for metaphor, as the cruel dynamics of cold water nature are reflected in the dynamics of the characters in this film.
Indeed, the dazzlingly colourful world which Sono constructs is rich with metaphor; which fish are visitors drawn towards as they enter a vast aquarium shop? They gleefully gravitate towards the large fish, the colourful fish, and, most pertinently, the dangerous fish. People are drawn excitedly towards these creatures, and feel energised and rejuvenated as they, albeit vicariously, enjoy their strength, power, and ruthlessness.
And so we have Mr Shamoto and Mr Murata. Shamoto, a meek and mild man with low confidence and an inferiority complex yearns for the peace and tranquillity he glimpses through the thick glass of the fish tanks in his modest little aquarium shop. Yet his relationship with his second wife is loveless, and the relationship with his errant and disrespectful daughter broken beyond repair. Mr Murata, however – a much bigger fish with his slick and successful aquarium superstore - is vivacious, arrogant, carefree, and charismatic, and people are entranced by his magnetism. As Shamoto's life - despite his quiet reluctance - becomes entwined into that of Murata, he comes to realise that, metaphorically at least, no matter how cold and ruthless the large, dangerous fish may be, people are always fascinated, intrigued, and entranced by their power and dominance. As he watches his daughter (who has been employed by Murata to work in his aquarium superstore) feeding smaller, helpless, live fish to the larger, razor-toothed beasts with unashamed glee, his realisation of his relative sterility in his relations with those around him is depressing and stark. At the same time, he observes Murata dominating, manipulating, and ultimately profiting, with seeming ease.
The manner in which Sono portrays Murata's gradual yet forceful manipulation of Shamoto is fascinating, and agonising, in its execution. Murata isolates the three members of Shamoto’s family unit individually, and exploits their conflicts, frustrations, and tattered interpersonal relations in order to use Shamoto for his own personal profit. As Shamoto is drawn deeper and deeper into the demented and cold world of Murata and his attractive wife, and as his complicity and culpability increase, his humanity and his will are eroded, along with his grip on sanity.
What's most strikingly poignant in Sono’s cruel picture is the depiction of the dynamics of abuse. Cold Fish is awash with the cruel, damaged minds of those who abuse, and of the shattered minds of those who are victims of abuse. There are those whom submit to abuse, abuse which triggers a response borne from a yearning to simply feel something, as opposed to the empty, hollow nothingness that consumes their hollow, wretched existence. And there are those whom, after wave upon wave of mind-numbing abuse, turn to the role of abuser to seek a depraved sanctuary. Abuse is often cyclical, and in Cold Fish, the abuse cycle is exposed in stark, depressing fashion.
Such challenging subject matter over a near two and a half hour period demands much not only from its viewers, but also its players, yet the performances here are assured and confident. Mitsuru Fukikoshi (who also appeared in Sono’s Love Exposure) is perfect as the downtrodden and shy Shamoto, and Megumi Kagurazaka is brave in a difficult role as Shamoto’s disengaged yet not wholly unsympathetic wife, Taeko. Hikari Kajiwara is entrancing as Murata’s pretty and implicated wife, Mitsuko, yet it’s perhaps most fitting that the man who dominates the screen with suitably overwhelming force is Denden, as Murata himself. From the moment he bursts onto the screen, Denden’s Murata is loud, blackly hilarious, charismatic, irritating, brutal, and utterly convincing. If there was ever a man that could hide his blackest truths beneath a constant stream of calculated ramblings, this is he.
Sono’s film is gripping and engaging throughout, and despite its extended running time, it flows with impressive pace, with the combination of snappy dialogue and colourful visuals proving an absorbing concoction. The only disappointing aspect, perhaps, is the faltering towards the latter stages of the picture, where our suspension of disbelief is stretched a little too far. Yes, this is based upon a true story, and yes, these characters are placed under an enormous mental strain, yet some of the reactions, personality conversions, and lurid transgressions seem too much to accept, even in the context of this moral circus.
Cold Fish is a fast-moving and almost overwhelming journey into the dynamics of dominance, violence, and murder, and with strong performances, vibrant colour, and stylish camera movement, the resulting picture has, much like its deadly star character, an almost irresistible appeal. Just beware that Sono’s bleak world of fish – and their human observers - is one which is very, very cold indeed.
Cold Fish arrives on region B encoded Blu-ray. Thanks to the length of the film, the extras are presented on an included DVD. The feature is proportioned in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio at 1080p, and with the compression codec of MPEG-4 AVC, one would expect a high quality reproduction as a result. However, I'm not sure if the check disc I received is not representative of the finished product, but the picture quality isn't as high as I would normally expect. Whilst the colours are strong (and Sono thrives on providing vast splashes of striking colours in this movie), and at its best the definition is excellent, there are many extended periods during which there is excessive graininess, which is a disappointment for a modern presentation of a high quality film.
As mentioned though, the colour range is well represented here, with both primary colours and other shades appearing vivid and vibrant. Despite the grumbles about the excessive graininess, I didn't detect any damage or similar issues.
The provided English subtitles, which can be toggled on or off, are well positioned and easily forgotten shortly after the film begins. The only issue here is that there is the occasional minor error in the represented English, though not enough to prove problematic, or to distort meanings or introduce unwanted ambiguity.
The disc itself is 22.8Gb in size, with the main feature using approximately 22Gb of that total.
The audio presentation here is Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD MA, and unlike the visual presentation, I have no such issues with the aural rendering of dialogue, sounds, and Tomohide Harada's beautiful and moving piano-driven score.
Due to the length of the main feature, extras are supplied on a separate DVD.
First in line is a Cold Fish Trailer, which walks a careful line between revealing the gruesome nature of this release, whilst also demonstrating the subtleties and showcasing the beautiful soundtrack.
Next is an Interview with co-writer Yoshiki Takahashi, which proves an enjoyably informal affair, taking place in the writer's flat. This runs for just over 50 minutes, and we get an insight into the development of the script, and Takahashi's fascination with the dog breeder who inspired the idea for the film.
A 40 minute interview with Jake Adelstein proves a worthwhile investment of time, as the author of Tokyo Vice was extremely close to the real life crimes that the film is based upon. The murderer in question was a similarly wily and charismatic serial killer; Adelstein was involved in writing for a Japanese newspaper covering the story at the time, and actually met the serial killer at one point. Adelstein also discusses other aspects surrounding the case, such as the relatively rare instance of the death penalty in Japan. As a man with an intriguing history of his own and a unique Westerner's insight into the murky underbelly of Japanese gangster culture, Adelstein's narrative is fascinating and engaging, and this is certainly the extra which I enjoyed the most.
An area I've never experienced in a featurette before appears next in Cold Fish Original Japanese Poster - Its Creation, Influences, and Film Posters in General, which once again features Yoshiki Takahashi, and though much shorter than the interviews preceeding it, I would still recommend a viewing.
There are some Third Window Trailers for other films in the Third Window stable, including the acclaimed Confessions, and Sono's own über-marathon, Love Exposure.
Finally, there's a Weblinks option, which opens instructions informing you to open the 'Weblinks' folder on the disc itself. Inside this folder are a couple of files which will take you to URLs, one for the Third Window web site, and another for what I believe is the Third Window YouTube channel.
All in all, it's an above average set of extras featuring plenty of information and depth. Third Window have presented a set of extras that define the standard for underground Blu-ray releases.
Sion Sono's latest filmic marathon is an exhilarating, colourful, and brutal journey into the lives of a serial killer and those who are drawn - unwittingly or otherwise - into his dark world. The exploration of manipulation, culpability, and cyclical abuse makes for stimulating viewing, though some of the more radical personality swings lessen what is for the majority of the film an unshakeable foundation of credibility. Even so, with a collection of full-bodied and mentally stimulating extras, and a film that demands a second viewing, this Blu-ray release (which will hopefully be clear of the slight degradation which seems to be apparent on the check disc) is an essential investment for those who enjoy the intelligent extremes of Japanese cinema.