Director Shinya Tsukamoto is most commonly known in the west as the warped creative mind behind the Tetsuo trilogy. Beginning in 1989 with the unforgettable Tetsuo: The Iron Man, continuing with Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer in 1992 and concluding with 2010‘s The Bullet Man, these movies marked Tsukamoto as the foremost exponent of horror at its most artistic and extreme.
With Kotoko, Tsukamoto switches from tech-noir sci-fi horror to drama, but brings with him all of the narrative imagination of his earlier movies, their hallucinatory imagery, and more than a little of their horror.
Kotoko is a young Japanese single mother struggling to bring up her infant son in present-day Tokyo. Although protective of her child to the point of paranoia, Kotoko’s mental illness leaves both her and the baby desperately vulnerable; unable to separate reality from the fictions inside her head, Kotoko is forced to move home several times after lashing out at those around her.
Cutting herself in moments of depression, yet sometimes swept up in rapturous emotional highs brought about by her singing, Kotoko is a lead character who’s both sympathetic and terrifying. It’s difficult not to warm to her gentle and creative side, as she appears to improvise songs on the spot and displays a genuine flair for making paper-and-string animal dioramas. But at the same time, it’s similarly difficult not to quake at her brutal shadow, whose sudden outbursts of violence are occasionally terrifying.
Not only does Kotoko have the habit of sticking a fork in the hand of any man who tried to chat her up in a bar, her loose grip on reality constantly leaves us wondering what’s going to happen next. Did her son really jam a pencil into his forehead, or was that just another shocking hallucination?
As Kotoko’s mental state deteriorates, he child’s taken away from her, and her sister instead assumes responsibility. But as Kotoko sleeps alone in her miserable apartment, a new light unexpectedly appears in her life; misfit novelist Seitaro (played by Tsukomoto-san himself). His presence, however, merely complicates her situation further, particularly when he himself displays an alarming masochistic appetite.
Kotoko truly straddles genres. Although best described as a drama, its tone and imagery is straight out of a horror movie. This isn’t merely a character study of a woman suffering from mental illness; it’s a film that uses all sorts of techniques to force the viewer to see the world from the woman’s perspective. Just as Kotoko struggles to separate fantasy from reality, so we’re never sure whether what we’re seeing is purely her paranoid delusion or a subjective take on what’s happening around her.
The closest analog I can think of is David Cronenberg’s 2002 drama Spider, which starred Ralph Fiennes as a similarly unreliable narrator. But where Spider prowled, Kotoko repeatedly strikes and retreats, offering up a contrasting sequence of gentle Michel Gondry-like character moments and assaultive imagery.
Horrific moments immediately cut to new angles, revealing that what we’ve seen was a fantasy. A constant use of interiors and long takes leaves us utterly unable to perceive the passing of time in Kotoko’s world; her son may be an infant in one sequence, and a four-year-old in the next. It’s an unsettling, brilliant use of techniques, and Tsukamoto employs strikingly similar ideas to Kotoko that he explored in Tetsuo. There’s a stinging, oppressive use of sound, an unflinching employment of violence worthy of the director’s 1995 film, Tokyo Fist, and sharp contrasts between long takes and rapid editing.
Standing proudly above it all is Japanese folk singer Cocco (who also co-wrote the script) in the lead role. She’s brilliant, and ably straddles the line between pathos and outright menace, serving both as protagonist and antagonist in a captivating performance.
Kotoko isn’t a comfortable film to watch, but it’s nevertheless supremely rewarding. The brutality and oppressive intensity of its direction horrifies and astonishes in equal measure. Few filmmakers succeed in getting to the heart of what sufferers of mental illness have to survive through every day, and fewer still make this experience hypnotic or memorable. With Kotoko, Tsukamoto’s done just this.
Not everyone will appreciate Kotoko, but few will be able to forget the afterimages it leaves behind.
Kotoko is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.
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