First coming to international prominence with his bizarrely gruesome 2002 satire Suicide Club, prolific Japanese director Shion Sono has helmed a dozen more films since then, though none have received quite the same level of attention as that gonzo attention-getter. Hopefully all of that will change with Cold Fish, his latest film about a meek tropical fish store-owner named Shamoto (Mitsuro Fukikoshi) who is cruelly manipulated by a sociopathic rival (Denden) and ultimately must fight to protect himself and his family from the man’s deadly machinations.
For my money, the film (being released this Friday, August 5th by our very own Bloody Disgusting Selects) is both a stunning psychological portrait of a man on the brink as well as a grisly and darkly funny satire on the dehumanizing aspects of capitalism, and it is without a doubt one of the best horror films of the year. (For those of you who find yourselves skeptical of these claims given my affiliation with B-D, trust me when I tell you I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass – the movie really is that good.)
Recently I sat down with Sono – visiting from Japan to attend a screening of the film at Los Angeles’ Silent Movie Theater – to dig deep into his latest creation, which is based on the true story of a Japanese dog kennel owner who committed a horrific killing spree in the 1980s. See inside for the full, revealing interview.
“I actually think it’s more grotesque to just cut someone’s throat or shoot them – because what the person does with them after that, you don’t know, so your imagination can kind of go a little crazy. [If] I can show you someone being cut into little pieces, it’s better to do it that way.“
Note: Sono and I spoke via an interpreter.
Shion Sono: As far as the real case that the movie’s based on, at first it was the producer who introduced me to the event. …I wasn’t really interested at first, but then as I continued writing the script, I found that this event that the movie’s based on sort of was able to come out a little bit more as a sort of fantastic aspect of the movie. So I was basing it on the real event, but it’s not about that real event.
BD: The “based on a true story” aspect to me also seems a little satirical in nature, in that this could be based on many real stories of people corrupted by outside sources. In particular, I see it as a satire of capitalism, and the way it dehumanizes people. What would you say about that?
SS: I don’t necessarily think of myself as a cultural or social critic really, but it’s more about the personal aspect of it. So I’m looking at the people who are involved in this. So in the case of the main character, Shamoto, I see him more as a victim of the process you’re describing, capitalism and the dehumanization of that system. And so I was interested in that result, how he finds it really hard, if not impossible, to live within that system.
BD: Shamoto seems like a genuinely good man, but there’s also some genuinely lamentable aspects to his character. He’s weak-willed, he lets his daughter walk all over him…he’s very much a conformist in many ways. Do you view Shamoto as a pathetic character?
SS: Of course Shamoto has his weak points, in the same way that everyone has weak points. I have weak points. There’s no such thing as a perfectly good man. What I was trying to do with Shamoto was create a character that anyone could be like. Anyone might seem like a good person or strong on the outside, but of course everyone has something that they’re weak in, something that they don’t like about themselves or a bad point.
BD: There’s a line in the film that I found really interesting, where Murata says something to Shamoto to the effect of, “you see this planet as a smooth blue sphere, and I see it as a pile of rocks.” I’m just wondering which of those, would you say, more pertains to your personal point of view about what the world is?
SS: I can’t say that my opinion lies in any one specific point. It’s probably closer to the middle. The reason is that every day, my opinion of the world changes depending upon my experience. So if something kind of bad happens to me, ‘oh, this is just a pile of rocks.’ But let’s say if I fell in love, and it was requited love, then of course I would look at it as a bright blue sphere. So I don’t have a fixed opinion on the world.
BD: You filled the film with such interesting, off-hand details. The scene between Aiko and Mitsuko’s friend at the fish store, where they start making out with the puppet animals on their hands – you never really delve into that, it seems very off-hand. What was the point of showing that? Was it just to add a quirky detail, or…?
SS: Actually, that scene really had nothing to do with the entire story, but I thought that the employee – the relationship between those two people – there was something kind of suspect or doubtful. So I was kind of interested in…looking at the job, looking at the people that work in this job, is not really having the work relationship, but more like a sexual relationship or a love relationship. And part of it is I had some doubts over who they were, based on some of the transcripts from the case that the movie’s based on.
BD: There’s a rape scene in the film that was horrifying, and at the same time I found myself chuckling, and then feeling ashamed that I was chuckling. Is that the sort of reaction you like to provoke in audiences? That sort of dark comic sensibility that almost makes people feel bad for laughing?
SS: Actually, that’s exactly the kind of reaction I was hoping for. I think that human emotions are strange things. There are so many different emotions, and so many different ways that people react to something, that if I were to make a movie that only brought out one reaction, that would be too simple. It wouldn’t be in line with people’s actual experience with the world. What I want to do is make movies that bring out a variety of emotions, a variety of reactions, because I feel like that’s more in tune with the strangeness…the way that we are built emotionally as human beings.
Take, for example, if you walk into a strip bar. If you look at the crowd, and there’s a priest here – looks like he came right out of the Vatican – and on the other side of the bar is some real sleazy pervert guy, and you know that when you look at them, you assume [the priest] is getting angry, like he’s offended by the strip, and [the pervert] is getting turned on by the strip.
But what if actually their emotional reactions were flipped, and the priest was actually the one getting off on the whole scene, and [the pervert] was getting angry? And they’re both looking at the exact same thing, they’re both looking at the girl dancing on stage stripping, trying to entice erotic feelings, right? That’s what I want to do. I want to take these kinds of things that we expect and sort of mix them up, make them more complicated. I don’t want simplicity. I want something to be much more complicated in my representations.
BD: I also saw the rape scene as sort of the final result of Shamoto’s transformation into this exaggerated masculine ideal of what a man is. It’s something that I feel is less prevalent now in the U.S. than it used to be, though it’s still there. Is the idea of the aggressive man very prevalent in Japanese society?
SS: Actually…the popular image of what a man should be [in Japan], or how people define their masculinity, is actually not to be that super-strong person. I feel that whether it’s America or Japan, either way, when [someone] sees that scene, they would probably have the same reaction of somebody being a little too excessive or aggressive, in the same way you had that same reaction.
BD: Your sensibility seems to be in some ways reminiscent of Takashi Miike. Are you friendly with Takashi, and do you feel that you do share some sensibilities as filmmakers?
SS: I think that any kind of similarities between my work and Miike’s work is more by accident than any sort of direct communication or relationship, because basically we’re from the same generation, so we kind of come out of the same sort of context. To be honest, I don’t really know him that well. I’ve only gone out drinking with him one time. I don’t have that kind of strong relationship with him.
BD: Even after Shamoto undergoes his transformation, in the end he’s unable to sustain that attitude because he’s essentially a good person. Murata is sort of the opposite kind of person. He’s presented as pure evil in many ways. I’m wondering if you believe in the concept of pure evil – that there are just people who are born without a moral compass?
SS: Yes, I do believe that people like Murata exist, because people like Murata don’t believe that what they’re doing is wrong. They don’t believe that what they’re doing is bad, or evil, so of course people like that have to exist.
BD: The gore is really explicit, but almost comical in how over-the-top it is. Did you see that as a way to sort of heighten the comedy in the film?
SS: I actually think it’s more grotesque to just cut someone’s throat or shoot them – because what the person does with them after that, you don’t know, so your imagination can kind of go a little crazy. So [if] I can show you someone being cut into little pieces, it’s better to do it that way.
BD: What’s your next project?
SS: Right now, I’m in the process of editing my most recent film. We finished shooting already, and I’m editing. So when I go back to Japan I’ve got about a month left before I finish that movie. Then in the fall, I think I’m going to Australia to start on a new project.
BD: Can you tell me what the films are about?
SS: The one that I’m editing right now is based on a manga, a comic, called ‘The Mole’, because it’s about a high school kid who basically…rejects society and hides like a mole. Like a mole goes underground, but it’s not like he really goes underground. It’s more like a metaphorical description of his personality. The one that I’m gonna shoot in Australia is gonna be a science-fiction movie. And then yesterday and the day before, I had some meetings with some American producers, and we plan to collaborate and make some movies next year.
BD: So there are going to be English-language productions?
SS: Yes, they’ll be in English. There’ll be American actors and actresses. I’m gonna make it here in America.
BD: Is there a title for the science-fiction film?
SS: I can’t say yet. We’ll probably make an announcement next month.
BD: Is there a horror aspect to it?
SS: It’s a horror/science-fiction movie.