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.

Suicide Club/Suicide Circle (2001): Subtle Messages?

Suicide club (or Suicide Circle as it was known in Japan) was directed and written by Shion Sono and released in 2001. It stars Ryo Ishibashi (Audition, Brother, The Grudge) as a detective trying to find out the common thread between a wave of suicides that is sweeping across Japan. With leads provided by a female hacker called “the Bat” the police try to track down who is responsible for all the deaths.

The film opened with a large amount of notoriety and controversy due to its subject and the amount of gore depicted on-screen. It quickly became a cult favourite and spawned a sequel called Noriko’s Dinner Table which shows events prior to and after the first film. The film takes place over a six-day period starting on May 27th.

The film starts in the Shinjuku train station at platform 8. Being in the Japan the platforms are packed with people. The camera focuses on a large group of school girls all talking animatedly and entering the platform via the stairs. The girls are wearing a variety of school uniforms that indicates they are not all from the same school.

As the Express train’s approach is announced on the loud speakers on the platform, the girls stop talking and laughing and all line up on the edge of the platform. Watching the Express train as it pulls up to the station the girls link hands and chant, “A-one, and a- two, and a three!” On three they all jump en masse in front of the speeding train.

A Lawrence Welk count down… A one and a two…

In true Takashi Miike style there are gallons of blood and body parts a plenty. The train and the waiting passengers are covered in blood and it runs across the platform in a small wave. When I first saw that scene I felt that Sono was paying a sort of homage to Takashi Miike who is well-known for his over-abundant use of blood and gore in his films.

This opening scene still shocks, even though I’ve seen the film at least three times now. It is one helluva opening to a film that both mesmerises you and continually shocks you as the movie plays out.

The next suicide takes place in a quiet hospital where two young nurses are working late. After they both kill themselves, the security guard finds a white satchel with a “roll” of human skin that has been stitched together. Oddly enough the exact same thing was found at the train station. The police have found their first thread.

Running through the entire film is the popularity of songs and music videos by a group of pre-teen (12 and a half years-old according to the detectives daughter) girls who promiscuously dance and sing about love and (it seems) death. When Detective Kuroda (Ishibashi) comes home, he calls a family meeting in the dining room. As his pre-teen son and daughter come into the room, his daughter turns on the television and the pre-teen music group instantly take the point of focus with the two kids.

Ryo Ishibashi as Detective Kuroda

The group is called Dessert (although throughout the film the name changes repeatedly to Dessart and Desert, part of the problem when dealing with an Independent film company) and the group’s biggest hit at the start of the film is called Mail me. A song about love via the internet with the lyric, “If you don’t mail me, I’ll just die.”

As the film progresses, the group’s hit song changes to Jigsaw Puzzle where the girls sing that “their piece doesn’t fit anyone.” Erotic suggestion aside, the song points out that if they cannot find someone to “fit” their piece, they’ll have to go away forever.

Of course the viewer is immediately suspicious (at least this viewer was) of this little Lolita group (in the westernized sense versus the eastern sense where Lolita’s dress in pinafores and ruffles as a sort of role play) and we begin to wonder if their songs and videos are transmitting subliminal messages telling kids to kill themselves.

Pop group Dessert or Desert or Dessart…adolescent death?

The body count begins to escalate. There are a few more “group” suicides but there are also single suicides. Like the mother who chops her fingers off while cutting what looks like a bread roll. Or the chap who throws himself off a building only to hit his girlfriend accidently, injuring her before he expires on the pavement. Of course this incident becomes a plot point that will crop up later.

While the computer hacker, the Bat, is trying to find out more information about who is behind the suicides, she and her sister are taken forcefully by a group of young men who make her to tell the police that she has been kidnapped by the “Suicide Club.” The Bat was the person who discovered a website that appeared to predict how many suicides were going to occur. White dots were girls and red dots were boys. When the 54 girls threw themselves under the train at the beginning of the film, there were 54 white dots. This was the information that she passed on at the beginning of the film.

The Bat, whose real name is Kiyoko (Yôko Kamon) and her sister are taken to what appears to be a small bowling alley that is full of live things tied up in sheets. The sheets are all moving and the smaller ones are making noises like animals in distress. Kiyoko and sis meet Genesis (J-pop performer Rolly) who looks like a cross between a Glam-rocker and a visual Kei performer. He informs the girls that this is his house of pleasure and kills a couple of the smaller covered objects by stamping on them.

He then serenades the girls with a song about “death shining” and has one of his minions rape and kill a girl in another sheet. Genesis wants to be famous and wants to take the credit for motivating all the suicides in Japan. After allowing Kiyoko to start emailing the police about where she actually is, Genesis knocks her away from the keyboard so he can tell the police himself where he is.

Rolly as Genesis…Gackt as Gary Glitter?

The police arrest Genesis, but find that he is not the perpetrator behind the suicides. Detective Kuroda loses the plot and then everything else. The film ends quite ambiguously and does not answer any real questions about what has been going on.

Watching the film for the third time tonight, I could not decide if Sono was inferring that the internet was dangerous to our children or if idolizing pre-teen girl bands was bad for you.

Considering the Japanese’s predilection of fancying the pants (literally) off of school girls it doesn’t seem too far-fetched an idea. Take into account that the internet was just starting to come into its own in 2001, it also makes sense that the people in charge would distrust its wide open access; especially now that the US government alone is pushing for world-wide internet control equal to that of suppressed countries like China and Iraq.

My final analysis, if it can be called that, is that Sono wanted to show how dehumanized people have become. Whether it is through increased use of the internet or the worship of “sexualized” urchins who writhe suggestively and wink knowingly while singing about love and ending it all, Sono appears to be saying that we need to not only wake up and smell the coffee, but, we need to get in touch with ourselves as well.

Not to mention the sub-message about craving fame so much that you perform inhuman acts to attain it. Is this yet another form of de-humanization? Is Sono also warning us of the deadly lure of fame? It could well be, Suicide Club seems full of messages both subtle and not so subtle and this is above the actual message the the film seems to be relating to its characters, or the “plot message.”

Where the plot’s message appears to be that death will get you back in touch with everything and that  it is only through this finality that you are able to really live. With my interest piqued even more after a third viewing, I have put the sequel, Noriko’s Dinner Table on my wish list; just to see if it adds anything to the mix that might clarify the film’s overall message, or messages.

A definite 5 star film that should not be missed and a perfect example of just how good independent J-horror can be, check it out. Just for the record, I watched the “uncut” version which has quite a bit of added gore.

Both prequel and sequel…