Thanks to a particularly nasty subset of American right-wing politics, “cuckold” has returned to the popular vernacular. “Cuck” has become an insidious insult lobbed at just about everyone who doesn’t fall into the narrow boy’s club of the right-alt movement. While a catch-all insult, it references the man of an adulterous wife, but specifically one who chooses to participate in his own denigration. Loaded with sexist and racial tensions, the insult draws on pornography and has become a coded whistleblower’s term to describe a “race traitor,” or any man who might align himself with helping women. As easy as it can be to dismiss it point finale, the word reflects the subset of a fearful and disenfranchised male population. These men fear looking inward — feeling delegitimized and helpless — preferring to throw out insults they feel reflect their own condition than face ownership over their own broken masculinity.
For men, sexual humiliation seems to run a different course than for women. Cuckolding especially seems rooted in the desire to reach a boiling point; a cuckold seems to be waiting for inevitable revenge. In cuckold porn, the husband watches as a man has sex with his wife, and almost inevitably he will be forced to participate in bringing pleasure to the other man. In this scenario, the husband often becomes reduced to a Victorian conception of womanhood, as he begs for the thing that disgusts him most and becomes reduced to a willing servant towards another man’s pleasure. If he gets off, it’s incidental, no one cares about his pleasure. However, a particular subset of this pornographic genre goes even further: the man does not become a willing participant, he does not revel in his own humiliation and he seems to boil up with tears and anger (conceptually at least).
This deep-seated self-loathing and desire for revenge lies at the heart of Sion Sono’s Cold Fish (2010). Syamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) struggles with his wife and daughter who abuse his trust and dignity. After Syamoto’s daughter is caught stealing, he becomes unwillingly intertwined in the inner world of The General (Denden) and his aquarium store. Consumed by persistent and seemingly inescapable fear (and trapped in this new world), Syamoto begins to unwind under the weight of humiliation. He will have his revenge.
In a career that depicts mass suicides, incest, castration and a score of other fun things, Cold Fish stands out as maybe Sono’s most difficult film. A slow-boil of escalating hatred, the film builds tension on the pulsing contempt growing inside of Syamoto. As his wife has sex with The General, she begs him to hit her, thanking him with every slap. When she returns to Syamoto, he himself thanks The General for taking care of his wife, unaware but somehow still a participant in the adultery. As much as the wife is attracted to The General’s power and fearlessness, she gets off on the degradation of her husband. She, just like her daughter, wants to see him suffer for not being strong and masculine enough. Their constant prodding is not just a punishment for his insufficiencies but a dare: we will reduce you to nothing unless you fight back.
That metallic taste of hatred may hang at the back of one’s throat over the course of Cold Fish. Rising anger fuels Syamoto’s evolution from cuckold to man, his victory a bloody massacre. The unsettling coldness of the film — the stark cruelty — represents a reflection of the real world. It’s a Sono film that does not present itself as an escape but an affirmation of the cruelty that exists within us and our helplessness to efficiently manage our own hunger and lust; the desire for sex and intimacy supplanted by the desire to tear bodies apart, to find satisfaction in the coursing blood of warm bodies. Syamoto cannot find solace in his family’s love and sees nowhere to run off to. This might not justify his violence but helps explains it; an unsatisfying punctuation to the cyclical violence of the real world.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.