Screenwriter Yoshiki Takahashi Talks COLD FISH

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Screenwriter Yoshiki Takahashi Talks COLD FISH
[Our great thanks to Jason Gray for conducting and sharing the following interview with Cold Fish co-writer Yoshiki Takahashi. You can find this piece and more on Jason's blog here.]

Ahead of the January 29 Japanese release of Nikkatsu/Sushi Typhoon title Cold Fish (Tsumetai Nettaigyo,『冷たい熱帯魚』) here in Tokyo I wanted to offer up a little exclusive on this cinematic beast from director Sono Shion (lately I've started writing "Shion" as that's how the director himself spells it on Twitter).

I've conducted an interview with the film's co-screenwriter and graphic designer Takahashi Yoshiki (brief bio here). He reveals some very interesting facts about the development and production of Cold Fish that haven't been brought to light before. The artwork above is an unused version of the poster courtesy of Mr. Takahashi himself, who described it as looking like an ad for a "Korean straight-to-video movie." While it is certainly busier than his usual style it's very cool nonetheless.

The image half way down the interview is a collage I quickly threw together. The top two photos are of course Cold Fish lead actors Denden and Kurosawa Asuka in Venice (photo copyright Peter van der Lugt). On the bottom are little-seen colour pictures of the murderous, rare dog-breeding couple Kazama Hiroko and Sekine Gen, who partially inspired their onscreen characters of Aiko and Murata. As you can clearly see Denden bears quite a striking resemblance to Sekine. It's funny that Denden had happened to work with Sono on Be Sure to Share before Cold Fish had even been cast (if my timing is not mistaken).

(Potential spoilers from here to the end of the post)

Based in Saitama, the couple's MO of poisoning people with strychnine, separating meat from bone in a shower room, scattering the small cubes of flesh in rivers, burning the bones down to ash in oil drums and scattering those ashes in remote locations is identical. Additionally, their list of victims also has parallels to what's in the film, with some gender and situational reversals. As brilliantly played by Denden, Murata has the same sociopathic self-belief in his criminal brilliance that Sekine did. "I should be awarded the gold medal for murder," Sekine once boasted.

See this 2009 Japan Today article on the upholding of their death sentences as well as the Japanese wikipedia entry on the case for a highly-detailed account of their crimes. Both Sekine and Kazama remain on death row at the Tokyo Detention House in Katsushika-ward, with Kazama being only the 12th woman in post-WWII Japan to make it there.

Jason Gray: How did you get involved as a co-writer on Cold Fish?

Yoshiki Takahashi: I've been working with the film's producer Yoshinori Chiba (the guy who is behind the Sushi Typhoon label and also known for producing Yatterman, The Machine Girl and numerous movies) for more than a decade. He brought me the idea to make a movie out of real murder cases, placing the dog owner one in the center. As you know, I have several professions including graphic designer, movie critic and I also do sometimes write articles on murder cases. So he thought it might be a good idea to throw it to me and see what would happen. At that time, we didn't have a director.

JG: At what stage was the project when you came on board? Did you work on the story with Shion Sono before the writing of the script began?

YT: As I told you in the previous answer, I was involved when the whole project started. My first draft was more true crime-oriented, and the protagonist was Murata, not Shamoto. Also, Shamoto had a son instead of a daughter. Shamoto's family problems, especially with his wife (in my first draft he was divorced years ago and having trouble with his son), were later brought by Sono.

JG: Shion Sono tends to write alone (EXTE and HAZARD being a couple of exceptions). How did things work on Cold Fish? Did you each take turns on a draft or sit in a room and work on it together?

YT: Yes, we did take turns. The radical change took place when he threw me back his first draft. Still, he once told me that ideas started to grow when reading my first draft. Anyway, I found Sono's first draft interesting and liked it a lot, plus there were some themes which were typically Sono's. So I wrote the second draft trying not to lose those things but to also add something new myself.

JG: Sono mentioned having an interest in true crime at the TOKYO FILMeX Japan premiere of Cold Fish. I assume you do as well. Aside from the Saitama dog owner serial murder case what other crimes inspired the story?

YT: Partially the Sengoku Jesus case and Futoshi Matsunaga case.

denden-kurosawa_kamaza-sekine.jpgJG: In relation to the Saitama serial murders, what was the process of deciding which facts to use and which to alter or drop completely?

YT: In the beginning, I and Chiba decided not to use dogs. Because dogs are so cute we thought the audience might just end up looking them. Plus, it's difficult to handle hundreds of dogs on set. So I came up with an idea of tropical fish breeders, because I happen to remember there were a lot of luxury tropical fish stores around Roppongi and Shinjuku when the bubble economy was at its peak. There are many similarities between dog breeders and fish traders, too. Or perhaps I can say that there are some oddities in businesses which deals in things or animals that can't really be priced. Also, the Saitama case took place over a long time period. We wanted this film to be a rollercoaster ride, so we did everything we could to make the pace faster.

JG: As co-writer are there scenes, lines of dialogue or moments in Cold Fish that you're particularly proud of?

YT: Murata's machine-gun dialogue delivery and the nuance of the spoken word in the entire film. It might be difficult to see it through the subtitles, but I did my best not to use "cinematically banal dialogue". The spoken words in this film are just like what people hear and say every day. It brings a certain level of reality to the film, I hope.

JG: When you saw the finished film, what surprised you most?

YT: The bloody fight scene between Shamoto and Aiko. That was improvised on the set. In the script Shamoto simply smashes Aiko's head with a statue of Mother Mary (several times, of course).

JG: Were you on the Cold Fish set and if so what was that experience like compared to other sets you've been on?

YT: I went to the set twice, and was impressed by the art direction, because it looked as real as possible despite the budget. And of course the way Sono directed the film. We can't provide multiple cameras like Hollywood movies do, but to get the same freedom for editing, Sono repeats the whole scene several times from different angles. It's not a very popular way of moviemaking in Japan, especially for a low budget film. Sometimes people only shoot a scene from a certain angle and that's it - no coverage at all (it really happens on so many sets). Sono's direction was totally different from that approach. Plus, I noticed he is always actor-oriented. He concentrates on the acting and lets the cameraman and other crew members do their jobs.

JG: You mentioned to me previously that you were collaborating on a follow-up screenplay with Sono. Was that what later became Guilty of Romance?

YT: Sorry, but no. I was once doing research for Guilty of Romance, but Sono came up with his script very fast. Some other projects are going underwater so there could be another Shion/Yoshiki collaboration in the future, but not Guilty of Romance. I did make the motion graphic title sequence for the film though.

JG: Among your various talents you're a prolific graphic designer (including the Cold Fish visuals and its clever tagline). Has your move into screenwriting been a natural progression for you?

YT: I guess it has been. I really love cinema and this business so much, and screenwriting is one of the best ways to contribute.

JG: Finally, what are you working on now and what are your future plans in terms of writing?

YT: I am now working on some scripts, not yet to be revealed. One of them is based on a true murder case like Cold Fish. The others will be more "genre," meaning sci-fi and/or horror. Nothing is certain at this time so let's see what's going to happen next!

Interview by Jason Gray

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