Based on the “true story,” as the movie claims, of an infamous series of murders committed by a married couple who owned a pet shop, Sion Sono’s 2010 film Cold Fish is much more than the goriness that fills up several of the scenes, including the film’s blood-soaked ending. Like many of the better films of its genre, Cold Fish reveals the hidden depths of Japanese society, which is often covered up with decorum and politeness. More to the point, the story is about the fatal encounter between a meek tropical fish shop owner, “Nobuyuki Syamoto” (Mitsuro Fukikoki) and his older counterpart, “Yukio Murata” (Denden), the Ferrari-driving owner of Amazon Gold, which is a larger, more successful tropical fish shop, complete with a team of young, pretty girls as employees.
At first, what we know of Nobuyuki’s life is that he has a wife, “Taeko” (Megumi Kagurazaka) whose idea of homemaking consists of little more than microwaved meals, and a cheeky daughter, “Mitsuko” (Hikari Kajiwara) who does not respect her parents and has an arrogant boyfriend with a hot car. What the film eventually reveals is the shattered life that the Syamoto family is trying to maintain, in spite of the inner-turmoil that each of them bares and for which they each blame one another. Entering the picture at a difficult time is Murata, who is shopping at a supermarket where Mitsuko has just been caught shoplifting. The store manager has Nobuyuki’s daughter in a back room, where she is being scolded for her petty theft. When Nobuyuki and Taeko arrive, they are contrite and obviously embarrassed. It is in the midst of the parents’ humiliation that Murata suddenly intervenes, calming the store manager, even convincing him to drop the matter and allow the parents to take their daughter away.
Murata then invites Nobuyuki and his family to visit his shop, Amazon Gold. Murata knows that Nobuyuki is also a fish shop owner, saying that he makes it a point to know his competition. Despite the torrential downpour, Nobuyuki follows Murata to his shop, where they are all astounded by what they see. Without revealing too much, it is at this point when, unsuspectingly, Murata begins luring Nobuyuki and his wife and daughter into his world, which is anything but a friendly law-abiding business. Murata pegs Nobuyuki as weak, whose wife Taeko is resentful of the disappointing life she is leading, replete with a step-daughter Mitsuko who loathes her and is acting up as a way of lashing out at both of them. Murata manipulates each of them, enmeshing them in the sinister world of murder and corruption that exists behind the impeccably maintained aquariums, breaming with beautiful fish, amphibians and crustaceans.
So, what does this have to do with the inner depths of Japanese society? While I will not presume to possess anything but casual knowledge about the topic, I do know what Sono’s film disclosed to me in the lives of his characters. Nobuyuki is inherently timid, as evident by his less than spectacular fish shop, who, in spite of this conscientious nature—he is nothing if not responsible—goes through life passively rather than with any sense of drive, let alone ambition or assertiveness. Yet, it is because of his low self-esteem that Nobuyuki ultimately makes the lives of the two women in his life, Taeko and Mitsuko, completely miserable. At the same time, it is because of this culture of male limpidness that monsters like Murata and his wife “Aiko” (Asuka Kurosawa) are created—existing at the extreme depths of the frustration and anger that Nobuyuki, Taeko and Mitsuko try to handle as “normal people.”
Sono’s Cold Fish, in the final analysis, is a film that clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, but which moves at a brisk pace, entertaining both the intellect and the senses. Another chapter in Sono’s search for the Japanese soul in post-Lost Decade Japan, which includes Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table, Strange Circus, and most recently The Land of Hope. More psycho-drama than horror movie, Cold Fish is a fascinating study of the gruesome resentment toward family and society that can exists in the hearts of otherwise compliant men.