Say what you like about director Sion Sono, compromise and predictability are not his strong suits. An actor, director and poet rolled into one, Sono's films have attracted acclaim and controversy inside and out of Japan for their extreme, wildly inventive and eclectic nature. His lengthy, genre-bending and invigorating 2008 feature Love Exposure, which came to the UK in 2009, somehow managed to cram together martial arts, lesbian fever, religious torment and the fine art of upskirt photography while winning awards worldwide (including a prize at the Berlin Film Festival). Like it or not, a Sono release is now seen as a cult film event, with extreme visuals, borderline exploitation, and a gleeful, crazy sense of humour all possibilities.

Apparently based on a true serial killer story - the real life exploits of serial killer couple Gen Sekine and his ex-wife Hiroko Kazama (perpetrators of the 1993 “Saitama serial murders of dog lovers” killings in Tokyo) - Cold Fish is a stark, bleak film whose narrative unfolds in a relatively straightforward way with far fewer visual flourishes than Sono's Love Exposure.

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The story sees humble tropicial-fish store owner Shamoto (Mitsuru Kukikoshi) presiding over an unhappy home. His teenage daughter Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara) couldn't careless for her attractive and young stepmother Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), and Shamoto worries that his modest income and lack of ambition have stifled his new wife's dreams. Caught shoplifting in a supermarket, rebellious daughter Mitsuko is bailed out by another customer, Murata (Denden), the owner of a much larger fish store. Murata talks the supermarket manager out of pressing charges by offering to help Shamoto's daughter go straight with a job and a place to stay at the dormitory attached to his fish store. Shamoto is relieved - at first.

But there's a catch: the gregarious Murata, and his sex-kitten younger wife Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa), are unhinged serial killers. Murata has killed scores of people over the years, sometimes for money but seemingly the slightest perceived insult is enough to set him off. Inevitably, Shamoto witnesses Murata commit a murder of an insufficiently agreeable business partner, and is then himself threatened into helping dispose of the body through the age-old tactic of chopping it up into pieces in a hideout.

Murata and Aiko revel in their sexual exploits and insane tag team butchery, in one scene discussing the quality of the manhood of a lawyer Aiko slept with before he was killed, as aforementioned manhood is sliced and diced along with the rest of the body into a bloody swamp on the floor. Seemingly too meek and humbled to resist, Shamoto is soon under suspicion from the police and forced deeper and deeper into the murderer's schemes until his very psyche begins to crack.

At times the tone gets hysterical and there are moments of utter ridiculousness, but there are smart layers of black satire underlying the proceedings and any extreme material ends up helping emphasise the journey into murderous insanity the film takes us on. In contrast to the deliriously over-the-top Love Exposure, Cold Fish is a piece that gradually pulls you towards the bloody madness: a cold, brutal film that feels like it is dragging you down.

There are plenty of scenes of extreme verbal humiliation, rape, domestic abuse and dismemberment that combined with the cool, grainy cinematography suggest a soullessness and viciousness in this Tokyo suburbia. Right at the centre of this vortex of madness is Murata, superbly played by Denden, who lays on a monster of a performance so intense that you can understand how his character could so totally consume Shamoto. It's a performance that matches the tone of film itself: walking that fine line between the ridiculous and the terrifying.

Reviewed on: 09 Apr 2011
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An innocent tropical fish salesman gets caught up in a series of murders in this violent and extremely gory thriller.
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Director: Sion Sono

Writer: Sion Sono, Yoshiki Takahashi

Starring: Denden, Megumi Kagurazaka, Tetsu Watanabe, Asuka Kurosawa, Taro Suwa

Year: 2010

Runtime: 144 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan

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