Cold Fish (Japan, 2010) is the story of serial killer, Murata, who owns a tropical fish shop, and the way in which he forces Shamoto, a mild-mannered family man, to become his accomplice. To read a simple description of the events that take place in this film, you might expect something similar to Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy: innovative in its aesthetics, but disturbing in its violence. In reality, Sion Sono’s film could hardly be more different. In OldBoy, violence has a tendency to steal centre stage from story, and visual innovation at times becomes an end in itself. In Cold Fish, on the other hand, bloody scenes have a clear relevance to theme and narrative, and its aesthetic, while polished, supports rather than distracts from the action.
Cold Fish’s opening sequence springs into action with lightning-speed editing, showing a housewife buying and preparing dinner. This stylistic approach teases the audience’s expectation of violence: if domestic duties generate this kind of visual frenzy, how will the film up the ante when it comes to the serial killer’s bloody rampage? Sono continues to thwart expectations, however. The remainder of the film, without exception, proceeds at a far more leisurely pace. When the first murder finally takes place, some twenty to thirty minutes into the film, no intrusive editing techniques are used. The event unfolds in real time, and although the effects of the poisoning are dramatic, the murder is carried out with matter-of-fact calm. Shamoto meanwhile manifests his shock and terror not by shouting but by shutting down.
The film’s dominant mode is not horror but black comedy. The focus is less on violence than on differing reactions to violence, and this is where the film becomes unexpectedly entertaining. The viewer will identify with the gentle Shamoto, who is terrified by the murders and revolted by the gore. At the same time, audiences laugh at the contrast between Shamoto’s horror and the cheerful zeal with which Murata and his wife murder and dismember their victims and dispose of the evidence. Shamoto dry-heaves while the couple are up to their elbows in blood, horsing around with their victims’ organs and making bad jokes. Their tongue-in-cheek humour and camp behaviour (involving more than a hint of sado-masochism) not only distracts from the violence, but lends it an air of unreality.
In the final twenty minutes of the film, Shamoto finally stands up to Murata, but in doing so, himself takes on the serial killer’s psychopathic tendencies. He goes home to his wife and daughter, not to be reunited in relief, but to take out his anger and frustration on them with extreme brutality. Although this can be difficult to watch, the rationale is clear: Murata’s treatment of him has changed Shamoto from a mild-mannered man to a murderer. Cold Fish is based on the true story of a Japanese serial killer who murdered more than forty people, but the end of the film was Sono’s own invention. The director says that he was fascinated by the gap he perceived in the real serial killer’s personality, between his jovial, outgoing demeanour on the one hand and, on the other, his cold, calculating ability to murder. The genuinely disturbing part of the film is Murata’s psychological bullying of Shamoto: it is during one such scene that Murata alludes to the abuse that he suffered at the hands of his own father, which he said forced him to ‘be a man’. The frightening change that takes place in Shamoto when he stands up to Murata mirrors the disastrous change that took place in Murata years before. Rather than showing the murderer to be a monster, Sono points to the circumstances that could make a monster out of anyone.