“I’m no kibbitzer,” Elisha Cook says in The Big Sleep. Those words ring loudly whenever I see something as proudly grotesque as Cold Fish, so doggedly determined to capture the midnight-madness audience, the gorehounds, and the fanatics of extreme cult cinema—a niche market that, like any other, demands quality catering. If you’re looking for a movie where a dying woman cuddles with the mostly dismembered cadaver of her husband, if you catch yourself getting nostalgic for Takasha Miike’s Visitor Q, if your taste in Japanese cinema falls more on the side of Imamura/Suzuki/Oshima than Ozu/Naruse/Mizogushi, read no further: Make haste to see Cold Fish, because it was made for you and you alone. Don’t let me talk you out of it—after all, I’m no kibbitzer.
For the rest, provided you aren’t sickened by literal blood and guts, casual misogyny scored to ironically cheerful music, Cold Fish may yet prove a chore—not because of the off-putting images, but because its extremism does nothing to interrogate or mitigate the banality of the story, which is a hybrid of the millionth send-up of the repressed/impotent Japanese patriarch and the “bad buddy comedy” that Barry Levinson held up as exhausted and bankrupt with 2004’s Envy.
The film begins with a little misdirection as a woman shops for groceries, apparently in a deliriously apathetic state, her grab-whatever motions scored to marching music. Sono constructs the opening, which then shows the same woman making dinner (in a seemingly equally haphazard manner) for her family, to suggest that the film is about a tamped-down housewife who will, at some point, cut loose and explode. While she has a short and dense list of reasons to unleash her repressed passions (her stepdaughter either ignores or abuses her, depending on the circumstances; she has to hide her smoking habit; and her sexuality remains untended due to her husband’s inhibitions), the first act reorients us to focus instead on the husband, the ineffectual proprietor of an exotic fish shop.
After the daughter is hauled in by a grocery store dick for shoplifting, the Envy template seems to take over as the Jack Black (character actor Denden) to our protagonist’s Ben Stiller (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) arrives to extract the family from the threat of an embarrassing prosecution. In short order, their benefactor reveals himself not only to be a rival fish shop owner, but forcefully adopts the trio with a mix of coercion, brusque charm, and eager-beaver insistence. The daughter starts working for him, the wife becomes his mistress, and the Ferrari-driving, trophy wife-flaunting maniac, resorting to extreme measures to get his way in a business deal, hijacks the husband as his new business partner and accessory after the fact.
Murder in film is a funny thing. It’s both underrated as an element of film that destabilizes the story (it so ruptures the narrative fabric that it skews the perspective of every other idea and emotion), and severely overrated as a screenwriter’s balm, a cheap alibi for refusing to deal with thorny, complex issues of social, psychological, and interpersonal dynamics. It’s when the husband begins to process the mess he’s stepped in, and tries to reorient his life to accommodate (and reassemble) his obliterated innocence, that Cold Fish starts to feel cheap and patchwork as an unfolding drama. The satire of the weak-willed Japanese salaryman has been so thoroughly annihilated that every additional second Sono spends pretending it still matters, as bodies continue to hit the floor, feels less Grand Guignol and more disingenuous, the work of a filmmaker who’s painted himself into the corner with congealed blood. The final atrocities feel like just another run around the block.