Cold Fish (冷たい熱帯魚 Tsumetai nettaigyo ) 2010 – Sono Shion 園子温

*/5

I believe it was Isaac Asimov who wrote, “It pays to be obvious, especially if you have a reputation for subtlety.” Getting his commercial feet wet in the 2002 bloodbath Suicide Club (自殺サークル Jisatsu sākuru lit. “Suicide circle”), Sono Shion 園子温 (b. 1961) does not evoke subtlety. Would it surprise anyone, then, that his latest creation, Cold Fish (冷たい熱帯魚 Tsumetai nettaigyo  lit. “Cold tropical fish”), retains that—Sono—luster? No, and it shouldn’t. But could I be blamed for holding out hope? I hope not.

Caveat lector: I am note opposed to violence, sex, nudity, etc., in film. That said, I am aesthetically remote from splatter flicks in general; gore does not stimulate my cinematic taste buds, neither does graphic absurdity for its own sake. In short, I do not enjoy porn of this order. If you do, feel free to ignore the rest, because you may well enjoy it; if you do not, read on.

One is tempted to recall words like poshlost’ пошлость, a Russian word that has an expansive meaning that the English “vulgar” or “crass” doesn’t quite capture. Nabokov, once jokingly transliterating it as “posh-lust,” applied the term to all manner of philistinism, but I often get the sense that he particularly disliked what is echoed by its Italian analogue banalità. Few things are as banal as gore porn, which overwhelm not so much with their graphic (sex-)violence—this element borders on comedy at any rate—as with their vapidity. Banalità, indeed.

This is saying something because the entire Cold Fish circus is (loosely) based on real events (pace the “A True Story” text that inexplicably flashes in English at the beginning). I had read Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice a couple of years back, a book I would recommend to anyone interested in Japan. It featured two chapters titled “The Saitama Dog Lover Serial Disappearances” that told the story of Sekine Gen 関根元 (or as he is called “Husband X” 夫X) and his “wife” Kazama Hiroko’s 風間博子(“Wife Y” 妻Y) (another man, Yamazaki Nagayuki 山崎永幸, was also involved, and the film’s protagonist is possibly based on him) killing spree in the early 1990s; body count of at least 4, probably 6, victims, that became known as the “Saitama Dog-Lovers Serial Murders” (埼玉愛犬家連続殺人事件). A brief overview of the case can be found here, but you would just as well read Adelstein’s book. At any rate, Sekine and Kazama—owners of a pet shop Africa Kennel—had poisoned, dismembered, and disposed of a handful of individuals in the 1990s. They would take their bodies to Sekine’s dog-training grounds, dismember them, and dispose of the remains in Gunma prefecture. It was one of those stranger than fiction stories that would surely be made into a film, and I was looking forward to this one.

Kazama (L) and Sekine. Note that Kurosawa bears not the slightest resemblance to Kazama (this would have made the sex scenes unwatchable). Denden, on the other hand, could pass for Sekine.

The movie picks up on many details. Sekine becomes Murata (Denden); Kazama is the wife Aiko (Kurosawa Asuka 黒沢あすか ); Yamazaki, a bulldog breeder, inspires the film’s protagonist, the fish-store owner Shamoto (Fukikoshi Mitsuru 吹越 満); Yasunobu Endo, a local yakuza boss, becomes Tsutsui (Watanabe Tetsu 渡辺哲); his driver Susumu Wakui gives us a performance by Pe Jyonmyon; and African Kennel transforms into Amazon Gold Tropical Fish Store.

Now the film, I think, is very much a disjointed affair, in the sense that there is a stark change in tenor in the latter half of the movie. I have said this many times in regards to Full Metal Jacket, and I think it applies as well to Cold Fish. The only difference is that the latter half of FMJ is not bad, only that R. Lee Ermey’s performance steals the movie, while the rest of Cold Fish is atrocious in subject matter and quality. I don’t wish to spoil the film for those that will see it, so I will restrain myself to repeating that Sono does not do “subdued,” but marches ahead to his favorite tunes of “shocking,” “controversial,” and so forth. It would be rather gauche for me to say that Sono butchers this one, so I will not.

The film is not exclusively execrable. According to Adelstein, Denden’s noteworthy performance reminded him of Sekine himself. Thus Adelstein:

“I had the pleasure of meeting Sekine twice before his arrest and watching him interact with customers several times and the performance is dead-on.”

Again:

“The actor playing the serial killer in the film was so reminiscent of Sekine Gen that it was unsettling. The same charisma, presence, voice. […] While he was still just a suspect, I met him at a dog show and we had a short little chat […] I said to Sekine, ‘They say you’ve killed over 10 people. Is it true?’ His response, ‘I’ve never killed anyone. But I might start with you.’”

Truistic as it is, most films—most narratives actually—reach that fork in the road at which point the buildup concludes and the author/director must decide how to propel the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. Those works that successfully bridge the intro and outro, that make the end as rewarding as the beginning, I consider good, or at least structurally sound. Others are mediocre at best. This crisis point is pivotal problem in the narrative process. When Sono finds himself at this crossroads he unfailingly opts for the path to the absurd, a choice that invariably feels like—and is—a cop out.

To be fair, had this been solely a sick fantasy of Sono’s like Suicide Club, I’d remain silent. But the actual criminal case intrigues more than Sono’s grotesquerie, and requires no embellishment. As Adestein observes:

“I was awed by the movie until the point on the bridge where the plot bridged off from the real events.”

Again,

“I saw the film at a theatre and was really impressed at the attention to detail until it veered off into pure fantasy in the last quarter […] Real life is often more bizarre than fiction and the Saitama Dog Lover Serial Killings is weird enough not to need embellishment. A shame.”

No argument from me. ¡Qué pena!

The latter half also piles on nonsensical sexual violence—actually the entire film treats the trope of woman-as-blow-up-doll rather offhandedly. Judging by his track record I suspect that the director thinks—or fantasizes—that rape qua rape is an old wives’ tale. The film abuses a host of other banalities: the ineffectual Japanese working man (see J. Christley’s review of this film in Slant, one of the few people that got it, I think), the limiting of sexual prowess to thugs, the sadomasochistic tenor of the whole thing, we’ve seen it all before. And above all, a rush of viscera, deluge of blood, and salvo of violence.

All this brings to mind another of Asimov’s apothegms: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”