Even before it delves headlong into a maelstrom of severed appendages and demon-id masculinity, Cold Fish makes it readily apparent that the center (a.k.a. middle-class normalcy) cannot hold. We open on a young woman, Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), as she grabs packages of microwave rice and soup from a fluorescent-drab grocery store. Writer-director Sion Sono injects these moments with frenzied portent, slicing up her shopping into assaultive fragments of suburban mundanity. Unnamed anxieties continue to hum beneath the surface once Taeko returns home and prepares a terse meal for older husband Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) and Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara), her resentful stepdaughter from Shamoto's previous marriage. Mitsuko's quick exit from the dinner table and Shamoto's subsequent failed seduction of Taeko points to the everyday dysfunction churning within the family. Just how deep the rot goes, however, initially comes in flashes, as when Shamoto briefly recalls Mitsuko kicking a prostrate Taeko in the stomach and screaming at her for daring to replace her deceased mother—a scene that Sono shoots and edits with the same frenzied queasiness as the opening.
These barely suppressed tensions come to the surface when Mitsuko is caught shoplifting at the local supermarket. The store manager initially rebuffs Shamoto and Taeko's pleas for forgiveness, but is convinced to drop the issue after the intervention of Murata (Denden), a gregarious old gentleman who, like Shamoto and Taeko, owns a tropical fish store. Extroverted to the point of parody, Murata quickly insinuates himself into the family's world, convincing Shamoto to allow Mitsuko to work at his store, an upscale affair staffed entirely by thin young girls in short-shorts and tank tops who live in an onsite dormitory. Soon, however, Murata's influence grows increasingly pervasive and twisted. He forcefully seduces Taeko in a behind-closed-doors meeting, his slaps seeming to ignite some sort of masochistic passion within her. He then strong-arms Shamoto into becoming his right-hand man in various business dealings, though the precise nature of the work only becomes clear when Murata poisons a potential rival during a meeting. Murata and his seductive younger wife, Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa), force Shamoto to accompany them to an abandoned mountain cabin to dispose of the body. The husband-wife team not only seem to know what they're doing, chopping up the corpse into chicken nugget-sized pieces and burning the bones in a barrel, but crack jokes as they go about their bloody business and insist upon Shamoto's continued assistance and silence.
Sono orchestrates the escalating body count and psychosexual perversity with near-unrelenting frenzy, turning up the temperature with such lurid if effective visual totems as a Virgin Mary statue that sits right outside the bathroom that Murata and Aiko dismember their victims. What gives whole stretches of Cold Fish a genuinely unsettling air, however, lies in Sono and co-writer Yoshiki Takahashi's unwillingness to attach Murata's mania to a recognizable source. This proves ironic, given that the film is loosely based on a real-life pair of married dog breeders who murdered four people, though the conspicuous use of intertitles marking the day and time of the film's events gives a ripped-from-the-police-files immediacy to the whole affair. Though early scenes find him discussing the sale of rare tropical fish, Murata's business transactions quickly fall away as solid justification for his crimes, never mind the clear pleasure he takes in enacting them. What propels him is something deeper and, save for a smattering of dark childhood recollections, largely unexplained. For all its grisly detail, it's this denial of rationalization that keeps us, like Shamoto, in thrall to Murata's gleeful sadism, which spreads like a noxious gas into every corner of the film's world.
Murata's relationship with Shamoto takes on a twisted mentor-tutor dynamic, in which the spineless younger man become schooled in the ways of dead-eyed masculine violence and unthinking misogyny by his cackling elder. One sees this especially in a confrontation that finds Murata demanding that Shamoto have sex with Aiko after disposing of a body, a particularly on-the-nose depiction of Cold Fish's unsettling connections between violence, sex, and the (ab)use of women by powerful, unstable men. (These late-film altercations are accompanied by a stylistic ratcheting-back on Sono's part, his once-frenetic camera settling into claustrophobic long takes and fish-tank neons cooling into more somber hues.) Given the subterranean emotional violence churning within his own home, the film makes us question just how far a leap Shamoto has to take to shift from repressed milquetoast to cruel alpha male. It's a familiar, if intensely wrought, move on Sono's part; and his equally jaundiced view of Shamoto's limp middle-class servility and Murata's strongman barbarity makes the film's third-act spiral into madness gripping, but also remote. Perhaps one can appreciate Cold Fish's pitiless vision while still questioning if a particularly visceral wallow in the muck can still leave you feeling anything but dirty.
Cold Fish will play on February 24 as part of this year's Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.