Bawdy and morose are two words director Sono Shion entices critics to use when reviewing his films. His films are often bloody and horrific and usually underpinned with a sardonic sense of humor rivaled only by Lars von Trier or Harmony Korine of his contemporaries. Cold Fish (Japanese title: Tsumetai nettaigyo) is everything I’ve described and more, but to try and exact an impression for you – it’s von Trier in structure (two acts of psychological boundary testing and plot building, final act of absurdity) and Korine in general madness and visual deterrents. No matter how you look at it it’s clear the word astringency is not in Shion’s vocabulary.
Like most of von Trier’s recent catalog, Cold Fish starts off innocently enough. A woman (Megumi Kagurazaka) gathers groceries for dinner, she microwaves all of the dishes, her family eats with her – her pacifist, fish store owning husband Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) and her petulant daughter-by-marriage Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara). Mitsuko rushes off after dinner and is later detained for shoplifting from a store that Murata (Denden) runs. Murata forgives Mitsuko and to show his gratitude offers her a job as part of his team of skimpy dressed fish nurturers. Of course he doesn’t describe it like this to her parents – and even thinking it to be an innocent little offer, Shamoto is reluctant to let his daughter work for the man. But he does and the eccentric Murata
openly forcibly welcomes Shamoto and his wife into his extended family.
This gets progressively horrific for Shamoto who is subject to watching men die, blackmailed into chopping them up, and having his psychological, physical and emotional bounds tested in other equally disturbing ways. If there’s any major issue I take with the film is that it prolongs the inevitable bloodsplattered final act by examining the first few upsetting acts to a point of boredom. The film runs at nearly two and a half hours and it has a tendency to feel like it. In repeating atrocities, Shino desensitizes us to the brutality of it all by the 90 minute mark which weakens the punch of the final act. This isn’t to say the final act’s perturbation goes unnoticed because damn will it ever make the weak of heart turn it off, but we as the audience become numb to the violence, so when Shino cranks it from 10 to 11 it’s only a minor jolt to our senses and a barrel of laughs to those in astonishment of the acts. In addition, we feel astonished because we know we’re watching purely lunatic acts and not particularly honest (re: depressing or distressing) ones. It’s a whole lot of fun to watch for those fond of New French Extremity and for those not up to par with the depravity international cinema offers these days… enjoy!
Personally, it is completely fair to say that this film wouldn’t work nearly as well on a psychological and emotional level if Mitsuru Fukikoshi’s performance as the timid protagonist snowballing to derangement wasn’t as dexterous. Like I mentioned twice before, this film is very much Japanese Lars von Trier. There are man-made atrocities collapsing the routine and warping the balance of its protagonist and for it to work on a human level the actor must be able to lucidly convey the internal freights and contemplations of the character. This is made twice as difficult because, as you may have surmised, Sono Shion’s focus is the background detail – the blood, the death, the destruction; what will shock and astound – so the cinematography is mostly comprised of long shots and Fukikoshi given few opportunities to express his character’s thoughts or feelings through his eyes while given ample opportunity to do so through body language – which he does, and might I add brilliantly. From the corruption of his soul and the telling withering stature which follows to the final act where he’s brutish and determined and his body commands your attention, he manages the challenge excellently. In doing so, he also prevents the chaotic atmosphere from becoming detrimentally incidental by reigning the feature in with his poignancy. Then, when the camera decides to close in on his face, well, that’s just the icing on top. The most notable feature of these shots are Fukikoshi’s flaring eyes which consume the frame and burn themselves into your memory bank. I doubt I will ever forget the expressions he made when he first experienced Murata’s hobby and then later when he first partook in it. Astounding.
Not to be negligent, the ensemble on a whole is fantastic. The calmness and weakness of the protagonist is made all the more noticeable by Denden’s confident wacko routine. By his side, he wife Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa) who is equally crazy and whose character shares the same literal blood lust as Murata. That duo is fantastically freaky and although they are undefined as humans, their actions more than make up for what we do not know. They’re nuts and that’s all they will be to the most pedantic viewer. And to flip back to my raving of Fukikoshi, if not for his grounded performance, those two would be annoying beyond belief, but because his exhibition is so sincerely human, they play off of each other beautifully and all three benefit as individuals from the interplay. (Similar to what Morjana Alaoui did for Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Begin and Martyrs as a whole.)
In a lot of ways this performance parallels Nicole Kidman’s in Dogville. It’s an enticing performance with many fascinations but none moreso than the performance’s innate sense of grace. For two acts we writhe as they writhe and they earn our deepest sympathy. In the final act, all hell breaks loose and they act accordingly. The main and perhaps only difference between the two is where everyone silently cheered on Grace’s actions in the final segment many will be repulsed by Shamoto’s. Then again, I was not one of them. Personally, it was a breathtaking experience in more ways than one to see a pacifist take a stronghold of a life that has dealt him a little more than utter humiliation and sadness and explode in the most exciting, if evil of ways. Did I condone the man’s actions when it was all over? No. Some of them yes, others no, but it is through the tragic insanity Mitsuru Fukikoshi erupts which enraptured me and earned my support – or, if not support, than empathy and perverse encouragement. A thoroughly human and utterly brilliant performance that puts the output by actors from the last few years, foreign or otherwise, to shame.