[The following is being considered for 2011 evaluations.]
Instead, Shamoto finds himself at the center of an intended class satire that uses the guise of a "based on a true story" crime thriller about a Japanese serial killer to set up social archetypes for grisly deconstruction. Shamoto, a mild-mannered, middle-aged fish shop owner, is the submissive employee who supplicates to his boss, the spineless reality beneath the idealized view of the loyal, obedient Japanese worker. He's but the first type that Sono relentlessly mocks, but where his epic but intimate Love Exposure rebuilt the world after shattering it, Cold Fish revels too joyously in its devastation, ultimately flying off the rails entirely until it's anyone's guess what Sono is trying to say.
The killer in question is Mr. Murata (character actor Denden), the owner of a far larger fish shop in town who catches Shamoto's rebellious teenager daughter Mitsuko shoplifting but kindly gets her off the hook and even offers her a job. All smiles, Murata initially seems the kindest man in Japan, helping take the increasingly withdrawn, even violent Mitsuko off the hands of Shamoto and his new wife Taeko, and he even offers to make the protagonist a partner in a lucrative business venture. But there's something about his motormouth that prevents anyone from disagreeing with him, and gradually that kindness morphs into pure sadism, Murata's powers of persuasion goading those under him to perform horrifying acts of their own accord but without anything like free will.
Murata exudes an almost magical effect on people, converting all of the film's women (all of them fitting into types of maladjusted Lolitas, impossibly hot housewives, and scheming, duplicitous cohorts) into obedient slaves and cowing Shamoto into becoming an accomplice in his murders. I can't decide what's more chilling, his bouts of icy severity or that raucous laugh and verbose cheerfulness that fills the audio mix at all other times. Indeed, though Cold Fish has its share of gore, the blood soaking up the tile floor of Murata's hideout proves far less disturbing than the casual humor with which Murata and his wife Aiko treat the grisly act of dismemberment and evidence disposal. Though Sono throws in vague references to a horrible childhood, the implication here is clear: Murata is the ascendant bourgeois entrepreneur who will stop at nothing to assert himself and does so bloodily.
For a time, this simple class warfare makes for a gleefully transgressive satire that recalls the best of Sono. The sensory overload of Love Exposure makes a subdued appearance here, primarily noticeable in the rainstorm that roars over the beginning action, so deafening it sounds like industrial noise more than Mother Nature. There are other giveaways, such as casting buxom gravure model Megumi Kagurazaka as Shamoto's bored second wife and decorating the film with such touches as an ironically placed cross and a pair of detectives who play as if they know what Murata is up to but seem only to compromise those forced into the killer's sphere, thus putting more names on the list of people to be made "invisible." But the film is at its best when Murata is cruelly curling characters around his fingers, almost supernaturally aware of their actions and thoughts. In one of my favorite fake-outs in recent years, Sono stages a double-trick wherein Murata screams at Shamoto until we fear he knows of cops putting pressure on the accomplice, only for the killer to demand to be taken to where Aiko is having an affair with his attorney, thus shifting fears from Shamoto to Aiko as we assume Murata wishes to kill his unfaithful spouse. Then the truth is revealed to be neither of these things, dissipating the tension abruptly and wringing a cold laugh from the manipulation.
Cold Fish had me for a time, and had it stopped at the two-hour mark, I'd have rated it one of the finer genre films of the year. But Sono fatally overreaches, attempting to show the cycle of class ascension and abuser/abused roles resetting to demonstrate how each bully, either physical or social (or both), only begets a worse generation. But the point is lost amidst horrific, unjustified misogyny and a nonsensical finale that undoes the chilling end the narrative would have had if it merely teased the implications of the climax. Sono's falling action is too unfocused and too self-consciously offending, concentrating so many bad choices into such a brief amount of time that 20 minutes nearly eradicates the accomplishments of the whole. It also shamelessly rips off Straw Dogs, a theft so brazen that this plagiarism is even advertised in the film's theatrical poster. It's a shame, for otherwise this previously taut, gonzo thriller would have made a fine intro into Sono's work. As it is, Cold Fish suffers such a drastic shift in tone that it makes this 140-minute film drag more than his four-hour magnum opus.