It's the middle of Japan's Taisho era (1911-1925). Hasumi (Masahiro Kurita) is a chain-smoking, sullen, and cynical freelance photographer who does pick up work for a tabloid newspaper. He's the kind of guy that mystery is lost on, the kind of guy who thinks unless he can take a picture of something it isn't real, but a mystery is exactly what lands in Hasumi's lap after an old colleague named Tsuge goes missing.. The editor at the newspaper tells Hasumi that Tsuge had gone to investigate bodies that had been washing up on the mainland across from Cantella Island, an offshore brothel built as an "autonomous region" where prostitutes could legally ply their trade. Local legend has it that Cantella is guarded by a giant Thunderfish, a mystery creature who feeds on women's menstrual blood. Tsuge had a hunch that there might be some kind of disturbing reality behind the myth of the Thunderfish, something that could explain why these people were getting killed on the island, but now he too has disappeared. Both Hasumi and his editor believe that Tsuge is probably just enjoying "investigating" things on Cantella (ie: rolling around in bed with the island's inhabitants), so Hasumi is dispatched for more of the same - and to get Tsuge back to work, and just maybe see if he can get a snapshot of whatever the locals think this Thunderfish thing is.
Strange monsters, mythical yokai, products of fevered imaginations and of course sex - all things Hasumi expects to find on Cantella, but as soon as he sets foot on the artificial island his expectations go out the window. Well, the sex is there, and plenty of it as long as his cash holds out, but shortly after his arrival he begins receiving strange, static-filled phone calls from Tsuge who may or may not be on the island in which he mumbles about photographs he's taken. Add to that the murder of an agent from the Public Safety Board doing a check on sexual health issues amongst the women of Cantella and Hasumi begins to wonder if he's gotten himself into something a lot more complicated, and a lot more dangerous, than what he originally expected. Could the key to all this be Hakua (Junko Kimoto), one of the senior prostitutes on Cantella who's possessed of an almost unearthly beauty? What's in the wooden box in her room? Who is peering through a peep hole at Hasumi and Hakua as the make love? Is it true what she says about the Thunderfish feeding off people's dreams instead of women's menses? And why is their a mysterious man following and harrassing Hasumi?
With all its twists, turns, and of course its heated sexuality, I couldn't help thinking of the works of Edogawa Rampo as I watched "Thunderfish". Despite some glaring historical anachronisms (transistor radios and illegal prostitution in Japan prior to the 1950's) the time frame of director Touru Hano's film fits nicely into Rampo's oeuvre. So does the somewhat morbid and fantastic subject matter of a giant aquatic monster, murder, voyeurism, and the lurking under current of disease symbolized by the most digusting-looking condom in cinema history. I culd easily see Hano's original screenplay turned into a latter day Teruo Ishii or Noboru Tanaka film complete with psychedlic visuals and kinky sex, but what makes "Thunderfish" such an insteresting film for me is that it foregoes that kind of obvious homage to ero-guro classics like "The Horrors of Malformed Men" or "Watcher in the Attic" to come at Hano's subject matter from an art house, instead of grindhouse, angle.
Beside Hano's wonderfully murky script and the ingeneous handling of what must have been a truly bare bones budget, the one big reason for this genre subversion is the absolutely stunning cinematography by Tetsuhiro Kato. Through his lens Kato transforms what could have been crisp but flat HD video footage into lush, delicious tableaus that play with light, shadow and eye-popping colour saturation. There were times I nearly mistook Kato's images as those of cinemtographic superstar, Christopher Doyle's. They were that good. Aside from the polish of "Thunderfish" though is the meat of the film, the unpretentious performances of its stars Kurita and Kimoto, the latter who exudes sex appeal and mystery.
"Thunderfish" is a perfect example of how much can be accomplished with so very little. Hano's layered script, Kato's wonderful eye, and Kimoto's simmering sexuality is a magic combination. Here's hoping that we see this trip working together again, and with a much more substantial budget.