Cold Fish (2010) Sono Tips the Horror Scales

DVD cover of Cold Fish

The 2010 film Cold Fish, co-written and directed by Sion Sono, aka Shion Sono, is based upon “true events.” In 2001 two dog breeders were sentenced for poisoning several customers and disposing of the bodies. Known as the “Saitama serial murders of dog lovers” as the crime took place in the Saitama Prefecture, the film version of the real criminals and their horrific deeds differ in that the “pets” on offer in Cold Fish are, by evidence of the title, fish.

Tropical fish in fact. At the start of the film Nobuyuki Syamoto, his second wife and teenage daughter are living over his small tropical fish shop. The teen is caught red-handed shoplifting in a store and the manager calls her father, Nobuyuki. He and Mrs. Syamoto go to the scene of the crime and as the store’s representative threatens legal action, a middle aged business man intercedes and talks the manager into not pressing charges.

Nobuyuki and his entire family then have their lives taken over by Yukio Murata, his wife Aiko and Tsui-Tsui another accomplice of Murata’s. Syamoto’s daughter goes to work and live with Murata, who has his own tropical fish shop with a bevy of teenage “troubled” girls who are there already. After becoming involved with the Murata’s Nobuyuki soon finds out that Yukio is a murderous psychopath. The younger shop owner is pushed into helping Yukio and Aiko get rid of a victim’s body and he gets caught up in the couple’s deadly game of making people become “invisible.”

While some things were changed considerably in the retelling of the real crime’s details the disposal methods where the victims were made invisible are exactly the same as those in the Saitama case. Sono specializes in films which concentrate on the more bizarre sections of Japan. This has led to an inevitable comparison to Takashi Miike.

Certainly Sono does have the same tendency as Miike to use copious amounts of claret in his death scenes, but he lacks the complete eccentricity of using the parts of Japan that one does not normally see. For example, Miike’s apparently hermaphrodite “Schoolgirl” in Fudoh: The New Generation or the villainess in Audition as well as other films feature the “underbelly” of Japan and Sono may come close but he still has a way to go in the Miike department.

Most of Sono’s work seems to be taking a sly dig at Japanese societal mores while turning most of his horror films into black comedies. The director’s take on these true life murders is no different. He makes his characters all that bit more eccentric and because of this the more horrific scenes take on a dark comedic slant. He does insure that the tragic elements remain. In the scene where the murderous Yukio is dying in the back of Nobuyuki’s car, the ramblings of the man reveal the horrific facts of his childhood.

Sono specializes in this juxtaposition of elements in his films. EXTE: Hair Extensions has a antagonist who is undoubtedly the oddest villain ever seen in a horror film. Singing about hair, his fixation, while the stuff engulfs his entire apartment is one of the weirdest and funniest scenes in the movie.

Cold Fish does not offer the same sort of comedic moments in its retelling of murder and a small dysfunctional family unit. There are scenes which can be described as amusing but not overtly funny. The surreal nature of the film overrules any other feelings that the story and the action may attempt to induce.

The viewer really feels as though they are trapped with Nobuyuki as he vacillates between fear and revulsion although his decision to go along with the whole thing instead of running down to the nearest police station does defy belief. At one point the local cops stop him outside Yukio’s massive fish store and question the hapless accomplice.Amazingly, the reluctant participant says nothing.

Sion Sono has delivered yet another quirky film with Cold Fish. The movie won several awards, not least of which was Denden (Yukio Murata) getting the Best Actor award from the Japanese Academy for his portrayal of the serial killing fish shop owner. This is a fascinating film and well worth the trouble spent (for those who do not like subtitled films) reading the English translations of the original dialogue. A real 5 out of 5 stars for entertainment.

A word of warning: The subtitles on the trailer below are slightly different from the DVD I watched.

EXTE aka Hair Extensions (2007) Hirsute Black Comedy

Poster for Hair Extensions aka EXTEEXTE OR Hair Extensions is a 2007 black comedy horror film made by the Shion Shono (who made the “based on a true story” horror film Cold Fish in 2010) and in EXTE Chiaki Kuriyama (Battle Royale, Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2) plays very much against type as a hairdresser in training who must take on a madman and a lot of cursed hair extensions to save herself and her niece.

At the start of the film two Japanese character actors who seem to be in pretty much every J-Horror film ever made open a shipping container because it smells. Upon opening the thing, they discover it is full of human hair. A body is also found and taken off to the police morgue.

Once it arrives, assistant and hairdresser(?) Tatsuo Sugarawa, played by Ken Mitsuichi (Audition, 13 Assassins) becomes obsessed with the bald-headed corpse and takes her home. Once there, he discovers that she is continuing to grow hair which he cuts off and sells, or gives away, to local hairdressers.

Unfortunately the hair is possessed and whomever gets one of the extensions soon dies, some after they’ve killed someone else. It seems the hair contains memories of the dead young lady who was murdered for her organs. Yuko and Yuki are roommates, the first a hairdresser in training and the latter a dancer in training.

Yuko (Kuriyami) is an optimistic, funny and good natured girl whose dream is to become a professional stylist. Her sister, Kiyomi is a nasty bit of work who abuses her daughter Mami and drops her off with Yuko when she wants.

As the hair begins claiming more victims, Tatsuo becomes more and more consumed with his dead girl and he begins behaving bizarrely. The film has its funny moments and other times there are scenes which are surreally entertaining.

In terms of the Asian fascination with long black hair, this movie is the ultimate homage to all things hirsute and creepy. Some of the scenes with the hair extensions are difficult to watch and others just are just flat out horrible. Despite this urge to turn away from the screen, or to at least watch through one’s fingers, overall the movie is more funny than scary.

It has to be said that the scenes with the girl after she is caught by the organ traffickers (with its Christmas music background) are more sad than terrifying and while these are disturbing to watch, the film does fall firmly into black comedy territory.

For those who do not like subtitled films, EXTE comes with dubbing that, to be honest, is not too horrible. At least the American market one features “normal” voices and not those cut glass English accents of The Grudge fame. A definite winner from the chap who brought the brilliant Cold Fish to screen.

The last of the name dropping posts.

Mikes Film Talk

My biggest break came after we moved back to the UK. I had been fronting videos and was trying to find work as a VO artist. I also was doing the odd supporting artist gig. From BBC’s Lovejoy

to  ITV’S The Chief I did a few. Then I changed my agent, or rather agents. While I was doing extra work I had two agents, both from Norwich. I then had a chat with actor and vocal coach John. Sorry, another of those “I can’t remember his surname” deals. He told me off for doing extra work. His view was if you are an actor then act, don’t stand in the background and watch other people do it. “And for God’s sake, go and get a proper agent…one in London!”

So I did.

It took a while as it seemed there were a lot of “me’s” out there already. I…

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Brother (2000): LA Yakuza

Cover of "Brother"

Written, directed and edited by Takeshi Kitano, Brother opened to mixed reviews. Filmed in Los Angeles it was Takeshi’s first and last  attempt at breaking into the American film market. Kitano also stars in the film (as Beat Takeshi).

The film has a fine array of actors in it. Omar Epps (perhaps better known to audiences for his work on the TV program House), Ryo Ishibashi (Audition, Suicide ClubThe Grudge 2), and the usual array of Kitano regulars – Ren Ohsugi  and Susumu Terajima just to name two.

Brother is another variation of Kitano’s many films that deal with the Yakuza. This theme is prevalent in almost all his films. Most of the character’s he portrays in his films are violent, individualistic and yet still childlike. Almost all the Yakuza characters he portrays die by the end of the film.

In Brother Kitano plays Aniki Yamamoto an enforcement officer of a Yakuza gang. When his boss is killed by a rival gang, Yamamoto must merge with the new gang or die. He chooses to exile himself rather than join the gang who killed his boss. As a going away present his old gang sets him up with a forged identity and a gym bag full of money.

He travels to Los Angeles to live with his half-brother Ken (Claude Maki). On the way he bumps into Denny (Omar Epps) one of Ken’s gang members causing Denny to drop a bottle of wine. While Denny is winding himself up to attack Aniki, he picks up the broken bottle and stabs Denny in the face with it. He then punches Denny in the stomach and leaves him lying on the side walk.

When Yamamoto findly finds Ken he also finds out that Denny is his brother’s best friend. In a very short time, Denny becomes friends with Aniki and the two are practically inseparable. Throughout the film Denny and Aniki gamble against each other, with Aniki cheating where ever he can to win. They begin to bond even more.

Ken is pretty small potatoes in LA and after he has an altercation with a rival gang.  Aniki sets out to help him broaden the gang’s horizons. After Aniki single handedly kills every member of the rival gang,  they all hole up at Ken’s place expecting a reprisal from the other gang’s partners.

While they are waiting for retribution one of Aniki’s old Yakuza gang members and friend Kato (Susumu Terajima) shows up at Ken’s door  and gets a gun butt to the head from Aniki who was  expecting someone else.  Aniki tells the now prostrate Kato, “I’m at war in America too.” With Kato’s help Aniki sets in motion  plans for their little gang to grow.

Ken and his fellow gang members learn that Aniki and Kato are extremely ruthless and violent men who treat death like a joke. With Yamamoto staking out new turf for the gang to take over, and merging with other Asian gangs, Ken, Kato and Aniki become too powerful for the Mafia to ignore.

The gang become so powerful that they have an entire building for their headquarters with the top floor as the main office complete with an indoor basketball hoop. They have their own accountant and solicitor and are trying to branch out even further.

When the Mafia decide the gang has gotten too big, they start killing gang members off one at a time.

Brother is violent, the body count by the end of the film is seventy-eight. But for all it’s bloodshed, it is filled with the typical  Takeshi Kitano trademark  humour and his character’s childlike delight at the pathos he causes. Although this is not considered by many, including Takeshi himself, to be one of his better films, it is still worth watching.

Venice Film Festival-winning film director Tak...

And if you’ve never seen any of his films before, Brother is a good introduction to ‘Beat Takeshi’ and his films.

Audition (1999): Pins and Needles

Audition (film)

Made in 1999 and directed by Takashi Miike, Audition  (Ôdishon)  was Miike’s ‘break-out’ film. Already quite prolific with his output, Miike had yet to garner world-wide recognition. Audition changed all that and Miike (pronounced Meekay) became synonymous with all that is weird and wonderful in Japan.

Miike cast Ryo Ishibashi as the lead character Shigeharu Aoyama. Ryo is something of a legend in Japan. He is, in essence, Japan’s version of Mick Jagger. He was a rock star first and foremost and as he got older he branched out into acting. More successfully than Jagger, whose random foray’s into the acting world have been, mercifully, brief.

Ishibashi Ryo
Ishibashi Ryo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film opens with the death of Shigeharu’s wife. He and his son, Shigehiko both go through a period of mourning. They soon set up a routine and life marches forward.Widower Shigeharu starts getting lonely and wonders how he can find someone to be a companion.

He is very hesitant to start searching despite his now 17 year old son urging him to find someone. He explains his situation to his friend and colleague Yasuhisa Yoshikawa who is a film producer. Yasushisa decides to help his friend by setting up a ‘fake’ film audition. This, Yasushisa  explains, is the easiest way to meet and date prospective girls.

Although Shigeharu is reluctant at first, he soon gets into the swing of it and finally finds one girl who catches his eye. She is Asami Yamazaki (played brilliantly by Eihi Shiina in what was only her second film) Although Shigeharu is quite taken with Asami and is keen to build a relationship with her, Yasuhisa and Shigeharu’s personal secretary don’t like the girl. Both people urge him to slow down in his pursuit and Yasuhisa has even had the girls past investigated.

Shigeharu disregards their well meaning advice and continues pursuing Asami. But the words of caution do worry him as is evidenced by the dream he has where he introduces Asami to his dead wife. He makes up his mind to make love to Asami on a romantic weekend away and to confess his feelings for her.  Once they arrive at the hotel, Asami reveals that she was abused as a child. She also states that if Shigeharu does really love her, he can love no-one else. After sleeping together, he falls asleep. The hotel phone wakes him up, the front desk is calling to see if he will remain in the room as Asami has left.

What follows next is a knuckle biting, nerve wrecking, and cringe worthy journey. Shigeharu attempts to find Asami and when they are re-united it is not a happy event.

Audiences have for years hotly debated whether what happens after Asami and Shigeharu re-unite is a dream or not. I have my own opinion, although it took a lot of “to-and-fro-ing” to get there. The entire film is at turns sad, hopeful, uneasy, scary, uncomfortable, weird and perverse. In other words a typical Takashi Miike film.

Photo of Japanese director, Takashi Miike, at ...
Photo of Japanese director, Takashi Miike, at New York Comic Con 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If this film is not on the top 100 films to watch before you die, it should be…and it should be at least number 2.