Tuesday, 19 May 2020
Directed by Shin'ya Tsukamoto
Third Window Films Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Slight spoilers.
Kotoko is a movie both directed by and co-starring Shin'ya Tsukamoto (as a novelist/’love interest’ to the main protagonist), who wrote and directed such movies as the Tetsuo trilogy and A Snake Of June. Usually quite nightmarish and surreal in his brutal visions this movie keeps to that to a certain extent but the surrealistic nature of some of the imagery is a lot more toned down and ‘stealth mode’ than what I would normally associate with him as a writer/director and it also has a reason for being there which is rooted in real world concerns. Sometimes the stripping down of those kinds of elements just makes their hijacking of the narrative thread even more potent and such is the case here.
The film stars somebody called Cocco as the title character and it’s about her and her relationship with her little boy. Or. more precisely, this film is all about her and there’s no doubt that this actress, who also wrote the story that the director wrote the screenplay from, is in a showcase performance.
We learn about her from a collection of visual moments of her life as she goes through the film and its all accompanied by her narrative voice-over throughout the entire movie. Very early on in the story we learn of her ‘special condition’ which means she sometimes sees two of a person simultaneously. Sometimes it’s benign like just seeing two bicyclists instead of one... and not knowing which way to dodge to get clear of them. Most times though it can be two of the same person in different parts of a room or street doing different things. One is almost always antagonistic and will brutally attack her and that’s usually the false one which disappears back inside her head after a while... but not always and the ways in which the ‘double’ can be integrated into certain scenes (like when she drops her baby off the roof of her apartment block) is used quite smartly by the director to disorient the viewer.
However, as the narrative starts to go along and you try to see things from her perspective, you may start to suspect that the things she is telling you may be open to suspicion. Have you ever read The Tin Drum by Günter Grass? Like the film, the original book is told first person by the voice of little Oskar but what’s made explicit in the book (and not at all in the movie) is that he is narrating his adventures from an insane asylum and the reader has to judge whether or not Oskar is indeed what he says and has been locked up by people who don’t recognise his special abilities or whether or not he’s actually insane. Well, very early on, I’d say within the first ten minutes of Kotoko, you probably will find yourself questioning her validity, especially when the authorities take her baby away and place him under the care of her sister.
Oh... she’s also into self harm too, cutting into herself in order to feel something quite often. This escalates when she is courted by a novelist (played by the film’s director) who still wants to date her even though both their first dates end with her stabbing him through one or other of his hands with a fork. Later, when they actually get involved, it’s a shock to see how far gone she is when she ritualistically mutilates his face some nights. The slow build to this revelation is slow in coming though and is down to the skill of the actress as she plays her mental aberration very well, pitching between moods and being just a little off kilter and overenthusiastic around those she needs to put up a front to. I’ve witnessed people similarly overcompensating in an attempt to normalise their appearance before and she seems to have caught this ‘look’ and feel of this particular symptom of failing mental health quite well.
So yeah, she’s not the most stable mother and Tsukamoto uses a lot of hand held camera to catch her in juddery motion which, in some ways, brings a certain much needed realism to the focus of the shots, especially with the characters inhabiting an environment that’s so well lit with bold colours and, sometimes, bright orange washes... like the ugliness of reality is trespassing on the beautiful inner world of the title character.
However, he does also take this technique too far, I thought, in certain shots... like one of the scenes set in the rain where the camera lens is equally pelted with drops of water. It has the same effect as seeing a lens flare in a movie... just pops one out of the picture and brings attention to the artificial nature of the medium. Granted, the film does tightrope the fluidity of the real and unreal with equal fervour and this may be the reason why shots like this creep in but, all it did for me was made me question why an obviously beautiful shot had been spoiled like this in the first place. It does make you seem like you are a fly-on-the-wall to a movie set rather than to the actual story, it seems to me.
Funnily enough, it’s not the bloody, violent or surrealistic nature of the film which I found hard. I mean, there are even shots of a young toddler’s head being blown apart in close up with an assault rifle which don’t particularly shock because, by that point in the movie, the hallucinatory nature of the narrative has been well established and so nothing really means much anymore. The thing which really bothered me was three or four sequences where the title character sings acappella songs (and sometimes does dance moves) which stop the action dead. I didn’t hate these sequences because they upended the flow of the story particularly or because they come at unexpected times. Indeed, the underscore to the movie plays effectively against the action and gives the film a kind of lullaby soap opera counterpoint. No, it was just the fact that these particular sequences seemed so interminably dull and boring in contrast with the rest of the movie which got me annoyed. Once would have been fine but it does get grating towards the end. This immediately made me think... unnecessary songs + actress with one name = pop star using a movie as a vehicle for her talent, possibly hooked up with the director. And, sure enough, turns out she’s a big folk singer in Japan with a successful recording career but with only a couple of films to her credit... which does explain certain things here.
However, the inclusion of the songs are a minor grumble because, pop star or not, she does a remarkable acting job here and she really does help carry the film. It’s a truly amazing performance as she brings this character to life and certainly worth the price of admission. Much more so than the conclusion of the story itself, I would say. So, yeah, that’s me done with this one now. It’s a film which was a little disappointing on some levels but I’m so glad I’ve seen this and it is one of the most incredible acting jobs I’ve seen in recent years.
Kotoko is certainly a film I would recommend to most anybody who is into more than just ‘action movies’ and something I may even revisit at some point. I watched this on a Blu Ray edition I bought in a recent sale from Third Window Films but I understand it’s also part of Arrow’s brand new Blu Ray box set of Tsukamoto films so, yeah, maybe give this one a watch at some point. It’s certainly an... experience.