VIFF 2010: psychopathy and masculinity in Cold Fish (Day 2)

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Title: Tsumetai nettaigyo (Cold Fish)
Director: Sion Sono
Language: Japanese
Year: 2010
Critical Reception: Variety's faint praise, screened at TIFF, VIFF, and Venice.
Psych Index: Antisocial Personality Disorder, Gender
In Brief: Cult director Sion Sono serves up a comedic melodrama horror fest not for the faint of heart and fans of sushi. There's some reason to the madness - namely, an opportunity to investigate the pure "id" incarnation of the masculine aggression - but you'd need to go along for the blood-soaked ride in order to make sense of its purpose. Even then, there's no guarantee you'd be liking what it has to say.
Cold Fish is loosely based on a true story about Japan's series of murders from the 80s committed by the owner of a dog kennel and his ex-wife in Saimata. Director Sion Sono decided to bring the story to the present time, and relocated the serial killer (Murata, played with creepy exuberance by Denden) to a tropical fish store. The count, as reported by the time they were given the death sentence in 2009, was at four dismembered bodies, but the film made it a lot higher (30 and counting), as the cold fish killers made a profitable career out of their killings.

The violence portrayed in Cold Fish was comedic and over the top, but not so silly that it was without bite. The film took the concept of violence dehumanizing people literally, as it stripped them to their animal form/carcass. It was quite nausea inducing at first, but since repeated exposure to violence has the potential to normalize it, the audience may adapt to the graphic images just as Murata predicted when he said to the dumbstruck Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), "you'll get used to it." Some things should not be gotten 'used to' though. There were several disturbing sexually aggressive acts against women depicted, and while a case can be made for their inclusion, it was still a dubious decision to include at least two violent rape sequences (the third one with the ex-wife's rape status is debatable). The stylish way with which the film was directed, along with the exaggerated comedic tone, were more unsettling when applied to sexual violence against women than to general serial murders. Serial killing by the number is quite low, when averaged across the human population, whereas violence against women is much more prevalent. Making sexual violence into black comedy is a bit, shall we say, ill-advised. If the men depicted were not so rotten, it would have made the film much less tolerable for these acts.

As it was, the film made a point about being trapped in social gender roles, and the deadly effect of violence perpetrated on women and children at the hands of the confused, angry, bruised male ego. The other issue anchoring the film's story - psychopathology, or according to DSM-IV-TR, antisocial personality disorder - served as a back drop to the main social commentary. There seemed to be a suggested link between the two issues, but it would be erroneous to think that an emasculated male ego would lead to psychopathic tendency. The former is a case of misdirected aggression, and the latter an inherent psychopathic tendency. In this review, I'd be focusing on psychopathy and masculinity as presented in the film, with a particular interest in the former.

Psychopathy has a long and fuzzy history in the field of psychology. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association, after vague changes in the span of their four versions, settles on Antisocial Personality Disorder as the equivalent to the term 'psychopathy' (Gurley, 2009). There are disputes to the category being a stand in for psychopathy, since anyone who breaks the law would only need to satisfy three behavioural criteria to meet the diagnosis. For example, having just these three rather common criminal behaviours would be enough (in addition to 'evidence' of a conduct disorder before age 15) to be called the equivalent of a psychopath: (1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest; (2) deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure; and (3) irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults. As you can see, it is not that difficult to achieve this diagnosis for your garden variety repeated criminal offenders, rendering the term 'psychopathy' meaningless in its severity and unique psychological properties. Furthermore, from a psychological point of view, psychopathy as it exists in the DSM points more towards the British tradition of defining personal abnormality in terms of social deviance and less towards the German idea of personal abnormalities causing personal or social distress (Blackburn, 2007).

In the field of forensic science, there are other sets of criteria being used to diagnose psychopathy, the most popular of which is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R). A score of 30 and above on the PCL-R would indicate a psychopathic diagnosis. Notably, many repeated criminal offenders score around 22, allowing a much more discriminating diagnosis for this serious disorder. The four-factor PCL-R addresses a couple of issues that researchers have criticized the DSM for not placing enough emphasis on: the lack of empathy coupled with superficial charms believed to be the core traits of a psychopath, and, to a certain extent, the more successful psychopaths who do not get caught breaking the law (i.e. the Wall Street psychopaths). The anxiety level of a psychopath is also quite low, and often assessed in addition to the checklists or DSM criteria. However, some brain damages (hippocampal and prefrontal) that would lead to lower stress reactivity have been linked with the unsuccessful psychopaths, but not successful (uncaught) ones (Ishikawa, Raine, Lencz, Bihrle, & LaCasse, 2001), suggesting some variations within the diagnosis. (For a fascinating recent controversy regarding psychopathic diagnosis in research, see Skeem & Cooke, 2010, the reply from Hare & Neumann, 2010, whose threatened lawsuit delayed Skeem & Cooke's paper from being published by 3 years, and the subsequent reply by Skeem & Cooke, 2010).

Murata exhibited all signs of a psychopath, regardless of which set of criteria you want to use for assessment: he was sexually coercive and precocious (sexual activities with multiple women), callous (dismembering human bodies with glee), deceitful (lying to his business partner), manipulative (with the wife and the daughter to get them to turn their father in), aggressive (beating Shamoto up), impulsive (going to see Shamoto's fish store in the middle of the night), reckless with safety for both himself and others (implored Shamoto to beat him up, then did not express much physical or emotional struggle/pain when hurt), completely lacking in remorse (no regrets or emotional pain about the lives he took), superficially charming (his exuberance was contagious and useful in getting others to carry out his will), emotionally shallow (laughed manically without feelings), exhibiting a grandiose sense of self (believing that he was giving the girls a better second life), etc. He took great risks even when cooperation would have been beneficial (murdering his right-hand man). Psychopaths have been shown to take great risks in hope of rewards and exhibit insensitivity to potentially negative consequences (Weber, Habel, Amunts, & Schneider, 2008). An Iowa gambling task study found that highly psychopathic subjects behaved similarly to patients with orbitofrontal lesions (van Honk, Hermans, Putman, Montagne, & Schutter, 2002). Lack of fear for or response to negative consequences (somatic marker hypothesis) and lack of emotional response or sensitivity to others' emotional distress (violence inhibition mechanism model) are thought to be hallmarks of psychopathy (Weber et al., 2008). Murata was also revealed, in the course of the film, to have a history of circumstances that might have contributed to his psychopathic expression: psychosocial (poor parenting, though it might not have been as impactful as the film led us to believe), temperamental (prone to react violently), and psychodynamic (pathological narcissism).

Other characters qualified for this profile include Mrs. Murata (Asuka Kurosawa) and Shamoto's daughter, Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara). Shamoto, however, was not a psychopath (or at least, not a developmental one), as evident by his emotional and fear responses (first, about the crimes committed, then, a reluctance to do what he could've done to his daughter), and an assumed lack of previous criminal offense. A psychopath would tend to show lower generalized emotional responsivity compared to non-psychopaths (Day & Wong, 1996). Psychopaths are able to only understand the literal (denotative) meaning of language, but not its emotional (connotative) significance (Cleckley, 1976). Brain studies have shown reduced activity in the amygdala (thought to respond to cues indicating distress in others) during emotional moral decision-making process (Glenn, Raine, & Schug, 2009). In addition, when faced with negative emotional situations (such as people being murdered), the psychopath would tend to use less of their right hemisphere for connotative-emotional processes and more of their left hemisphere for denotative-linguistic processes (Day & Wong, 1996). Victim's distress meant nothing for Murata, for example, whereas Shamoto reacted to his daughter's verbal responses. Furthermore, while Shamoto did commit sexual assault on his wife, he did not exhibit a tendency towards coercive and precocious sexuality, considered a fundamental aspect of psychopathy (Harris, Rice, Hilton, Lalumiere, & Quinsey, 2007).

What Shamoto may have become, albeit momentarily, was a hypermasculine response to the constant threats regarding his perceived/accused lack of masculinity. ‘Masculinity’ is a socially constructed concept, and the masculine attributes usually include physical strength or power, aggressiveness, and sexual potency (Beesley & McGuire, 2009). 'Hypermasculinity' is an exaggerated sense of male identity (Beesley & McGuire, 2009). Some studies (Vandello, Bosson, Cohen, Burnafold, & Weaver, 2008) have shown that the state of manhood - more so than womanhood - may be threatened with challenges to its masculinity, and men may react in a physically aggressive manner to this threat. In particular, insecure self-esteem - exhibited by Shamoto - may make one more vulnerable to threats of self-image (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996; Tedeschi, 1983). On a more psychodynamic level, the story bore some resemblance to the Greek mythological account of Oedipus, used by Sigmund Freud to develop his theory regarding the male ego. Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, and Freud believed on a symbolic level, this was part of the male ego development. In some ways, Murata took on the position of Shamoto's father as they role-played initially, and Shamoto eventually was forced to engage in sexual intercourse with Mrs. Murata.

Despite its penchant for violence and sexual violence, Cold Fish was an interesting look at the pure "id" incarnation of the male aggression, as the male ego struggled to develop itself (and failed). The under-developed male ego, in psychodynamic terms, was the culprit of the explosive expression of violent aggression in Shamoto (aided by a psychopath with undeveloped emotions). This was perhaps related to Japan's recent crisis of masculinity (Taga, 2006), the scope of which is beyond this essay (and this author's expertise). The black comedic aspect of the film allowed the audience a sort of protective wall against the madness - you can laugh, or you can be shocked into stupor at the terror unfolding. Sono mercifully chose the former, making Cold Fish a shocking but livable screen affair.


Baumeister, R. F., Heatherton, T. F., & Tice, D. M. (1993). When ego threats lead to self regulation failure: Negative consequences of high self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 141-156.

Beesley, F., & McGuire, J. (2009). Gender-role identity and hypermasculinity in violent offending. Psychology, Crime & Law, 15(2&3), 251-268.

Blackburn, R. (2007). Personality disorder and psychopathy: conceptual and empirical integration. Psychology, Crime & Law, 13(1), 7-18.

Cleckley, H. C. (1976). The mask of sanity. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

Day, R., & Wong, S. (1996). Anomalous perceptual asymmetries for negative emotional stimuli in the psychopath. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 105(4), 648-652.

Glenn, A., Raine, A., & Schug, R. A. (2009). The neural correlates of moral decision-making in psychopathy. Molecular Psychiatry, 14, 5-6.

Gurley, J. (2009). A history of changes to the criminal personality in the DSM. History of Psychology, 12(4), 285-304.

Hare, R. D., & Neumann, C. S. (2010). The role of antisociality in the psychopathy construct: comment on Skeem and Cooke (2010). Psychological Assessment, 22(2), 446-454.

Ishikawa, S. S., Raine, A., Lencz, T., Bihrle, S., & LaCasse, L. (2001). Autonomic stress reactivity and executive functions in successful and unsuccessful criminal psychopaths from the community. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 110, 423-432.

Skeem, J. L., & Cooke, D. J. (2010). Is criminal behavior a central component of psychopathy? Conceptual directions for resolving the debate. Psychological Assessment, 22(2), 433-445.

Skeem, J. L., & Cooke, D. J. (2010). One measure does not a construct make: directions toward reinvigorating psychopathy research - reply to Hare and Neumann (2010). Psychological Assessment, 22(2), 455-459.

Taga, F. (2006). Review of men and masculinities in contemporary Japan: Dislocating the Salaryman Doxa. Men and Masculinities, 9(1), 108-110.

Tedeschi, J.T. (1983). Social influence theory and aggression. In R.G. Geen, & E.I.
Donnerstein (Eds.), Aggression: Theoretical and empirical reviews Vol. 1 (pp. 135-162). New York: Academic Press.

van Honk, J., Hermans, E. J., Putman, P., Montagne, B., & Schutter, D. J. (2002). Defective somatic markers in sub-clinical psychopathy. Neuroreport, 13, 1025–1027.

van Honk, J., & Schutter, D. J. L. G. (2006). Unmasking feigned sanity: a neurobiological model of emotion processing in primary psychopathy. Cognitive neuropsychiatry, 11(3), 285-306.

Vandello, J. A., Bosson, J. K., Cohen, D., Burnafold, R. M., & Weaver, J. R. (2008). Precarious manhood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1325-1339.

Weber, S., Habel, U., Amunts, K., & Schneider, F. (2008). Structural brain abnormalities in psychopathy. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 26, 7-28.


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