“Kotoko” is the latest devastating and direct work from Japanese cult director Shinya Tsukamoto, released on Blu-ray and DVD by Third Window Films on the same day as their Blu-ray release of his cult name-making “Tetsuo” film series hits the streets. This is a micro budget offering, shot digitally by a skeleton crew and produced, photographed, written, edited and directed by Tsukamoto himself; it’s a million miles away from the fantasy excesses of the auteur’s body-morphing sci-fi cyberpunk classics, though is just as uncompromising and naked a vision in its own way as anything else he’s ever conjure up. This intimate psycho-drama was first conceived as a project which was intended to highlight the acting talents of the acclaimed folk singer Cocco, a Japanese singing artist who had previously provided Tsukamoto with the song used for the end titles of his 2004 film “Vital”. The singer takes centre stage as the lead character here, and is rarely off screen for the full ninety minutes; her real-life sister and teenage son also appear briefly while the film charts in disturbing and relentless detail the mental deterioration of a young single mother living in Okinawa, Japan, as she struggles to bring up her cherub-faced infant son Daijiro in a world she comes to believe is filled with bizarre dangers in even the most benign settings. It’s a dazzlingly intense performance from the skeletally thin, unusual-looking singer, and a role scripted for her by Tsukamoto after he’d conducted an extensive interview with Cocco about her own mental health issues and problems with self-harming. Tsukamoto also stars in the film, playing the only other character to get any substantial air time besides Kotoko herself.
Coming over like a cross between John Cassavetes’ “A Woman under the Influence” and Lynch’s “Inland Empire”, “Kotoko” takes us deep into the nightmarishly subjective world of its unstable lead character. The shaky digital camerawork provides quick and easy shorthand for the young woman’s immediate state of mental fragility, and her horrifying experiences and thoughts are related to us by an unnervingly calm, after-the-fact voice-over. Although the visual style speaks drama documentary reality, the radical subjectivity of what’s actually on the screen means we are often plunged into a maelstrom of surreal and extremely threatening happings (accompanied by an audio landscape of horrors designed by Masaya Kitada, which seems to obliquely hint at the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which occurred while the film was in production), the veracity of which we can never accept at face value, despite (and because of) their often shocking nature.
Kotoko sees a double world; every friendly face is accompanied by its opposite -- a malevolent doppelganger who means to do her and her baby harm. Protecting Daijiro from this hostile split world is a full-time job and Kotoko is unwilling to ever let go of him for a second as a consequence, even while attempting to cook (which leads to many smashed dishes and split food, and hysterical screaming fits). If that isn’t bad enough, she is also prone to delusions in which the unfortunate youngster meets with a series of terrifying accidents, either at her own hand or by others (those viewers who dislike movies in which children are shown in extreme danger should avoid this one like the plague since cute, bewildered-looking urchin Daijiro meets with more gruesome dispatches inside the mind of his deluded mother during this film than perhaps any other screen toddler before and probably since!). The only way in which Kotoko can banish these malign visions is by singing serenely to herself and conjuring hope from her art; but seeing as she still can’t ever be entirely sure that she’s not accidently dropped little Daijiro off of the side of the nearest high building, the isolated single mother also seeks solace in the feeling of reality she finds in hacking into her arms with a razor blade -- not with the intention of killing herself, but to marvel at the body’s inherent will to live.
Understandably, it’s not long before the kiddie is taken into the care of her more responsible older sister.
Here, Tsukamoto belies the extreme nature or just the downright weirdness of most of the content of the film so far, by presenting a series of naturalistic and tender vignettes in which the recovering estranged mother visits her now older son in the countryside home of his new career. It’s also around this point in the narrative, that Tsukamoto himself enters the fray as an offbeat love interest for the troubled woman, which brings an unexpected note of zaniness to proceedings -- for Tsukamoto is Kotoko’s stalker, a famous novelist called Seitaro Tanaka, who falls head over heels for her after hearing her singing on the bus while on her way to visit her son. He tries to get her to marry him while she blows smoke rings in his face or generally just abuses or ignores him. Their oddball relationship turns even odder and nastier when Tanaka takes to passively allowing the frail young woman to beat him up and stab him with forks in place of slashing herself!
Although the jigging camerawork might put some people off, “Kotoko” is actually often a stunningly beautiful-looking film with a rich palette of striking primary colours at its disposal. Cocco was also the film’s art director as well as its lead actor, and she makes an entrancing job of vivifying the strange world of her troubled protagonist with striking interiors. Kotoko’s deranged visions, which get even more disturbing as the film progresses, are punctuated by delirious performance pieces in which she dances and sings odd nonsense songs, sometimes in pouring rain; and despite many scenes of graphic violence, oddly inappropriate comedy, and a predominating air of general weirdness the final scenes introduce such a graceful note of ill-defined but nevertheless very present optimism for the future into the mixture, that they succeed in elevating the film’s arthouse indulgences, graphic content and offbeat performances with a quiet, dignified humanism which ultimately redeems all the excesses. “Kotoko” is tough in places to handle, but there are memorable scenes here which are as striking as anything Tsukamoto has produced in his entire body of work. The imagination on display and the unfettered performance of the untrained singer-turned-actress Cocco are never less than commanding and the film certainly deserves a viewing by anyone willing to countenance a work in which the lead character always remains aloof and hard to understand due to the very nature of her isolating condition, despite never leaving the screen. It rewards perseverance though, with a simple but effective final sequence which allows the humanity to fall naturally into place after ninety-minutes of unhinged craziness.
“Kotoko” looks great on DVD and also sports an effective and immersive 5.1 Surround Sound audio track. The disc extras include a theatrical trailer and trailers for other Third Window Films titles; and there’s a twenty-one minute interview with the director, who talks about his long association with the singer Cocco, his inspiration for the screenplay and the experience of shooting the film with a skeleton crew. Tsukamoto also provides a few surprising insights into his intentions for the film regarding its themes and the ideas motivating the script.
“Kotoko” is an effective, hallucinatory psychodrama slotting comfortably into the ‘neurotic female’ sub-genre of thriller, alongside recent films such as “Black Swan”. Anyone who enjoys such works will be equally intrigued by this. Also available on Blu-ray.
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