Sion Sono is a self-confessed chameleon, who can switch effortlessly from the laugh-a-minute black comedy of 2008’s “Ai no Mukidashi (Love Exposure)” to the heartfelt medical melodrama of 2009’s “Chanto Tsutaeru (Be Sure to Share)” and the splatter shock of his latest, “Tsumetai Nettaigyo (Cold Fish).”
Still, there are connecting threads between these films, including a dark sense of humor, a rather grim view of the human situation and a take on Christianity, from its doctrines to its symbolism, that mixes cheeky blasphemy with curiosity and even admiration. (“If there were a Jesus fan club,” Sono once told me, “I’d like to join it.”)
Sono has a tendency to pile on and run on — and “Cold Fish” is the long-winded rule rather than the pointed exception. Also evident, though, is his talent for strong characterizations and moments that have the force of conviction, however twisted and deviant.
Loosely based on the real-life exploits of a serial killer couple, the story of “Cold Fish” descends into a nightmare of ijime (bullying) for the mild-mannered victimhero, as his worst fears are realized and most shameful weaknesses exposed in an abattoir of blood and gore. It’s horror made intimidatingly personal.
Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), the hero, embodies the film’s English-language title in his own introverted, barely there persona. The owner of a small tropical-fish store in a town near Mount Fuji (whose grandeur silently comments on his insignificance), he is scorned by his rebellious teenage daughter Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara) and his slutty second wife Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka).
One day, in a drenching rain, Shamoto and Taeko are called to a nearby supermarket, where Mitsuko has been caught shoplifting. But a friend of the outraged manager — the bald, aggressively jocular Murata (Denden) — unexpectedly leaps to Mitsuko’s defense and even offers her a job at his own tropical-fish store, which is bigger and far more prosperous than Shamoto’s.
This benevolence has its price, however, as Shamoto soon discovers. Mitsuko takes to her new job as a shop girl with the enthusiasm of a convert to a (skimpily clothed) cult, never returning home.
Meanwhile, Murata reveals himself as not only a sexual predator with designs on Taeko, but also an ego-mad, homicidal tyrant, with a Lady Macbeth-ish wife (Asuka Kurosawa) who aids him in his murderous schemes. This pair force the hapless Shamoto to help them transport bodies to a ramshackle forest villa where, amid images of Mary and Jesus, they gleefully dismember them as Shamoto vomits his guts out in a sink.
Killing, it turns out, gives Murata and his wife a sexual bang, and humiliating Shamoto a sadistic tingle. Though suspecting he will someday join the long list of victims, Shamoto goes along in the self-sacrificial belief that he is protecting his family from Murata’s insane revenge. How little he knows.
Veteran character actor Denden (who is usually cast in avuncular, nice-guy roles) plays Murata as a grinning, pummeling, raging dynamo who is all extroversion and id; think the noisy playground bully grown unchanged to manhood. But he also has the charisma of the born salesman and seducer. Shamoto, who lives in fear of offending a fly, may be appalled at Murata’s audacity (not to mention his crimes), but his success at business and sex makes perfect real-world sense.
In contrast to Denden’s Murata, who is all of a sociopathic piece, Fukikoshi’s Shamoto is harder to parse. Is he really just a quaking dupe — or is he the tight-lipped worm who will finally turn? It’s to Fukikoshi’s credit that we don’t know — because the character doesn’t seem to know, until the last, decisive moment.
Sono slams this climax home with the energy and excess of an over-amped punk band (though the soundtrack drumming that accompanies the dramatic peaks is ironically rhythmic). He also inserts gags amid the gore — but the realistic effects and emotions, including Shamoto’s agony over the loss of his soul, make the laughs stick in the throat.
Perhaps Sono should have listened more to his inner Shamoto, less to his inner Murata, who doesn’t know the meaning of enough. At the end, I felt like taking a mental shower, while being glad of my empty stomach. But, like Lady Macbeth’s damned spot, “Cold Fish” is not so easy to dismiss. And like the Bard, Sono knows his Bible — at least the Devil’s best lines.