Cold Fish – A TIFF film review

When it comes to Japanese cult-house horror, Sion Sono is a name that comes to mind.  Although admittedly not hugely popular in his home country, he is widely celebrated worldwide as a director who exposes the deepest darkest corners of the human psyche.

His latest film, Cold Fish, was just one of Toronto International Film Festival’s 300+ offerings.  A program coordinator who introduced the film said that it was one of the best of those he had seen on a recent trip, which made him decide to add it to TIFF’s already eclectic roster.  How many films he had seen on this trip was not mentioned.

Sion Sono was then invited to say a few words to the audience, and he did precisely that:

I am sick.  And nasty.

And he couldn’t have been more accurate.

Cold Fish is a story about Shamoto, a quiet, unassuming fish store owner whose teenage daughter is caught shoplifting.  The store manager, Murata, says he’ll take her on as an employee at his aquarium instead of pressing charges against her, an offer that Shamoto and his wife gratefully accept.  But the charming Murata is not at all who he appears to be.  When he fails to sell an imported tropical fish to a business associate at ten times its actual value, he poisons him.  Shamoto can only helplessly observe as the man clutches his throat in terrified confusion and collapses to a slow and agonizing death.  Meanwhile, Murata taunts Shamoto, proclaiming his murderous ingenious and Shamoto’s sheltered naivety.

The contrast between these two characters is one of the more compelling dimensions of the film.  The gregarious Murata is everything Shamoto is not –  fun, exciting, ambitious, risk-taking – and how these characters balance each other out is a big part of why I watched with fascination in spite of my riveting hunger.

What’s at stake is Shamoto’s wife and daughter, and more importantly Shamoto’s pride.  He is fully embroiled in Murata’s schemes, and drawn into his unpredictable character like fly in a lantern.  Indeed, Murata is arguably the central character.  His performance is stunning;  though he’s a serial killer who’s murdered tens of individuals, he’s the kind of guy for whom the party only starts when he arrives.  He is himself a paradox of realities – the flattering friend one second and the abusive adversary the next – behaviour that is characteristic of psychopaths as it maximizes the torment experienced by the victim.  That his character is played by a comedian named “Den Den” makes his performance even more captivating – a comedian as a serial killer?  Could Will Ferrell pull something like that off?

There are broader notes of conflict as well.  The film begins with a screen-length scrawl:  “This is based on a true story,” coupled with techno beats that immerse you unapologetically into Sion’s sick world.  It’s both a reminder of what we’ve seen in Sono’s previous work (see Suicide Club review here: and a preview of the nonconforming spectacle before us.

The narrative, behind which lies Sono’s skillful direction, tragically takes us only so far.  All the intensity that legitimately builds up in the first half is squandered in favour of blood, sex and gore, making us wonder whether the script got massacred along with Murata’s many victims.

During a Q+A after the film, Sono himself admitted that the last 20 minutes of the film were his imagination while the rest was more or less based on true events.  It’s as though in the second half he realized he’d need to bridge the divide.  And so begins the downward spiral of the script, the raw, bone-chilling violence making way for gratuitous sex, blood and barbarism.

The leap is disappointing.  The resolution is fluky and unrewarding.  As a Japanese friend of mine wondered after the film, what was Sono trying to say?  Is the film a study of the aspects of masculinity? asked one audience member.  Partly, answered Sono, but if there’s anything the film is saying about masculinity, it’s negative.

And what sort of false impressions will Westerners get about Japanese culture as a result of this film?  Do all Japanese have as dark a world vision as Sono does?

Maybe so, maybe not.  But one thing’s for sure:  we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Verdict:  Stylish and engaging first half followed by a cop-out resolution.

2.5 / 5


A photo-op with director Sion Sono

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