Sion Sono (Love Exposure, Ekusute) is definitely on a role here. After dazzling people with the epic Love Exposure he's back with another film that is bound to make heads turn. Cold Fish [Tsumetai Nettaigyo] may start off quite slow, but by the time the end credits make their appearance you can rest assured you've experienced one hell of a ride. It's not for the faint of heart but true Sono fans can rejoice, this is prime Sono material.
Looking back, Cold Fish reminded me a somewhat of Takashi Miike's Audition. It follows a very similar pattern, starting off quite slow and growing subsequently more gruesome, grotesque and absurd during the second part. Looking at Sono's film though, the entertainment level is more evenly spread and even the slow start is pretty interesting by itself. While Audition's first hour bordered on boring, Cold Fish works a lot better on a dramatic level and makes it a lot easier to stay put.
The film follows the life of Shamoto, a rather timid and plain-looking Japanese dad. His family's life is not without problems, but they still get along just fine. That is, until the day they cross the path of Murata, the owner of a tropical fish shop (just like Shamato) who captivates the entire family with his eccentric behavior. What they don't realize is that Murata slowly reveals the cracks in the family's happy facade, tearing them apart while gobbling up each family member for his own sinister plans.
Even though Shamoto is definitely the main character of Cold Fish, Murata is really in the center of the film and he'll be the one you'll remember when you look back on it. It's quite obvious from the start that there is something wrong with the man, but with his weird yet cheerful behavior he manages to captivate the audience along with Shamoto's family. This makes the second part of the film all the more interesting as you too were suckered by his charm, even when it was made perfectly clear early on that something was not right.
Sono is not someone who needs big budgets to impress. While his films aren't visual masterpieces, they feature a pleasant amount of beautiful shots and some very solid camera work. The editing too is remarkable, with some very harsh cuts resulting in a few simple, snappy yet unsettling scenes. While there is definitely room for improvement, there is still plenty to admire here.
The soundtrack is quite interesting to say the least. Cold Fish is not a film void of humor, part of which comes from the music. There are for example some pretty outlandish scenes near the end of the film that are edited to off-key jolly carousel ride music. This contrast really heightens the absurdity of these scenes and makes for a pretty special experience. It's nice to see Sono make such bold decisions as in the end the film as a whole benefits greatly from it.
The acting is also key here and it must be said that all main characters put in a wonderful performance. Mitsuru Fukikoshi does a great job with the timid Shamoto (especially in the later scenes), but it's really Denden who steals the show. His version of Murata is essential to the success of the film, as he takes you on a ride that's quite hard to stomach altogether. But in the end it's his character that glues everything together, and it's the believability of his character that will tow you through most of the second part of the film.
Sono's films are often labeled as misogynistic and while the women in this film are definitely in need of some professional counseling, the men don't really come out any better. The woman are selfish, soda-masochistic leeches while the men are beastly, arrogant and lying scumbags. It's quite easy to come up with a whole lot opinions on Sono's view of the world, but as he handles most of his films with an unmistakable rim of dark humor, it is difficult (if not impossible) to tell how much of his material is serious and how much of it is simple manipulative entertainment. As for Cold Fish, I would say that those who label it as misogynistic are probably a little too over-protective.
Sono's latest is a film that gets better with the minute. While the first hour is pretty decent and presents some interesting dramatic strands, the second part is where things get really interesting. Visualizing the descent into madness is one of Sono's strengths and with Cold Fish he proves he can do so with proper restraint. Where films like Love Exposure and Suicide Circle can feel quite uneven, the build-up of Cold Fish is stunningly precise and even beats that of Sono's own Strange Circus.
Cold Fish is a film that will sit well with those who appreciate awkward, cruel and excessive Japanese cinema. It's a splendid descent into madness with the proper amount of dark humor, flawless performances from the entire cast, some interesting dramatic undercurrents and a solid audiovisual coating. It can get rather graphic in places and you might want to reconsider if weren't impressed by earlier Sion Sono films, but otherwise this is Sono at the top of his game.