Mental instability takes a deadly turn in Shinya Tsukamoto’s Kotoko, the only Japanese film to win the Best Film Award in the Orrizonti of the Venice Film Festival. Tsukamoto is best known around the world for his first two entries in the Tetsuo series, with Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet and A Snake Of June cementing his name in cult legend. His latest surreal nightmare is available in the UK courtesy of Third Window Films.
Cocco – a well-known Japanese folk singer – performed the closing theme tune for his 2004 film, Vital. She takes centre stage in Kotoko, playing a young single mother with unrestrained reality issues. Cocco also provides the soundtrack for Kotoko, a move that might be considered self-indulgent by some, especially when you consider the amount of time she spends singing and dancing on screen. Tsukamoto’s latest comes with a fascinating concept, but even at 90 minutes long, this psychological horror yarn does feel drawn out.
Cocco, however, is astonishing. The character of Kotoko is captivating, vulnerable and at times frightening, brought to life by a mesmerising performance that holds the film together through some rocky terrain. Kotoko lives alone with her young son, cutting herself on a regular basis, not to self-harm, but to see if her body still allows her to exist. Suffering from an unknown illness that makes her see double, she lashes out at everybody, spending her time on the run from her past. In the hands of say, The Pang Brothers, this would have been a fascinating horror concept in its own right, with Kotoko unsure of whom the double is until the doppelganger attacks.
She fights back with violent consequences, living a life of self-doubt and loathing. Her weapon of choice is usually a fork, with ‘boyfriend in waiting’, Tanaka (Shinya Tsukamoto plays her put upon love interest), baring the brunt of her animalistic rage. The director – a regular in his own movies – plays the part of a celebrated author infatuated with Kotoko. Throw a baby into the mix and Kotoko becomes even more terrifying. As her situation worsens, and she becomes a liability, her son is taken away from her and placed in the care of her sister. Kotoko is left alone with her thoughts; a dangerous place to be even on the brightest of days.
The film is at its most terrifying when Kotoko is left alone with her son. Cutlery is put back in the draw for these sequences, which finds our despairing protagonist struggling to balance the pressures of everyday life with the burden of motherhood. Some of the films standout – and most shocking – sequences involve the untimely demise of her unsuspecting child. Reality and fantasy merge on a regular basis; so much so it becomes increasingly difficult to believe in anything you witness on screen, often resulting in a lack of viewer investment.
However, Tsukamoto is at his best when he enters the realm of surreal fantasy, and besides Cocco’s astonishing portrayal, these are the moments that linger longest in the deepest, darkest corners of the mind. Her relationship with Tanaka provides a welcome break for her son, but it doesn’t really add anything new to the mix, feeling like another excuse for domestic abuse that’s already been provided elsewhere. The fact that Tanaka pretty much disappears from view in the final act suggests that Kotoko is an improvised affair, a feeling backed up by the lack of direction and closure. There’s little substance despite some fascinating subject matter, and Kotoko feels way too drawn out as a result. Incoherence is hardly surprising considering Tsukamoto’s heritage, but it would have been nice if the film had come together in a more satisfying manner.
Tsukamoto’s latest is intermittently enjoyable but far from the director’s best work, held together by flashes of brilliance, and a hypnotic lead performance that demands your full attention. AW