Mr. Murata, the tropical-fish vendor and serial killer who drives the Japanese horror fantasia Cold Fish, likes to describe what he does to his victims as "making them invisible." He accomplishes that by first making every part of them visible, butchering their corpses into pieces of red meat the size of sirloin tips. Played by the actor Denden, Mr. Murata is a cheerfully raging madman, but he is never so giddy as when he and his wife, Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa), are stripped to their skivvies and painted in the blood of dismembered business partners.
Director Shion Sono (Suicide Club, Noriko's Dinner Table) comes from the Takashi Miike end of the J-horror buffet, and he's staking his claim to shock value on making the most queasily specific movie yet about the practicalities of chopping up a body. Fine, then: Cold Fish might not perturb anybody who's read the even more vivid entrail-disposal descriptions in Ian McEwan's novel The Innocent, but there is something memorable about the sight of a woman spooning with her husband's small intestine.
But Cold Fish, which screens this week as part of the NW Film Center's Japanese Currents series, nauseates but doesn't really disturb. That's because it slowly adjusts viewers to its depravity, like gradually boiled frogs—and also because it never contrasts its brutality against any tenderness or warmth. It's essentially a Japanese Straw Dogs without Peckinpah's over-identifying anguish. The movie's poster shows browbeaten hero Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) with his eyeglasses smashed like Dustin Hoffman's; his character is so telegraphed that we know exactly what kind of transformation meek Shamoto will undergo once Mr. Murata tosses those symbolic spectacles in the river. The direction and degree of his frenzy are harder to predict, and impossible to believe. In Sono's movie, a man can be only a nebbish or a rapist—which, as a symbol for the plight of the Japanese businessman, sure, whatever. But as a man, he doesn't have enough soul to compel interest. Cold Fish is an extreme movie looking to provoke extreme reactions. I'd prefer to respond the way I usually do when I step in something vile: gag a little, and go on with my day.
55 SEE IT: Cold Fish screens at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium 9:30 pm Friday-Saturday, Dec. 9-10. Japanese Currents continues through Sunday, Dec. 18, at the NW Film Center. Visit nwfilm.org for full listings.