UK DVD Release Date: 08th October 2012
UK Distribution Label: Third Window Films
Original Japanese Release Date: 07th April, 2012
Running Time: 91 mins.
Writer: Shinya Tsukamoto(Screenplay)
Starring: Cocco, Shinya Tsukamoto
Kotoko is the latest film from Tsukamoto which is released on the same day as the Tetsuo set. It stars folk-singer Cocco in her movie debut and she puts in a phenomenal performance which powers the film as it gives the audience a taste of mental illness and a traumatic kick in the guts.
Kotoko (Cocco) is a young single mother who lives alone with her baby son. Suffering from an unknown illness that makes her see doubles of people and not knowing which version of the person is real, it severely impacts her day-to-day life, often leading to her lashing out violently. The only time she does not see double is when she is singing. As her situation worsens and she becomes a liability her son Daijiro is taken from her and put in the care of her sister. Kotoko is left alone with her own thoughts and is at a loss as to how to get Daijiro back. Then a man named Tanaka (Tsukamoto) enters her life when he hears her singing on a bus trip and finds something awoken inside himself. Tanaka is a novelist with a hit title called The Man Who Brightened the Moon in bookshops but he leads a lonely life. Despite initial rejections he persists but Kotoko’s mental state is not getting better.
Comparing Tsukamoto’s early works like Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tokyo Fist with his later works like A Snake of June and Vital shows a marked change in his approach. The all out visual assault, boundless energy, extreme horror and violence are gradually lessened and his editorial techniques are used much carefully over his filmography as more contemplative and humanistic tales become Tsukamoto’s focus. Kotoko, being the latest, uses the medium of film to track the psychic and mental traumas a character suffers and it carefully uses violence and editing techniques to help convey these traumas.
I must stay alert, otherwise I could die
The situations, anxieties and ideas in Kotoko are based on Cocco’s real-life depression, self-harm and other mental issues. Also worked into the film is a fear of violence and war being suffered by the young which Tsukamoto and Cocco both share. Cocco and Tsukamoto both went through an extensive interview process where they brought her experiences and ideas in. Through the film, Tsukamoto visualises her world with a lot of input in her. As a result the film is very tough.
We witness Kotoko’s day to day life at the start of the film. It seems mundane until her narration informs us that she has problems and visions which destabilise her mental equanimity. We are given examples and it looks unbearable. She lives the life of a single mother and we witness fraught scenes of her trying to multitask with a wailing baby, suffering visions of doubles of people, one of which is evil and means to attack her baby. She also takes to self-harming which crops up frequently. At one point she plaintively asks, “I wonder what other mothers would do?”
As the film continues her violent visions just get bloodier and bloodier, emotionally intense and the threat they pose to the cute Daijiro is terrifying. One wonders how she can even lead a normal life let alone raise Daijiro. This being a Tsukamoto film, normal life might not be in reach.
I see double
I have probably said this in every review during Tsukamoto season but with Tsukamoto in the directorial chair, the film is brilliant at representing the character’s mental space and is visually strong at conveying ideas. Shot on digital with a small crew and amateur cast (a lot of whom are Cocco’s family), there are many delicately layered sequences moments of contemplation and beautiful and long scenes of intimate family gatherings where an emotional delicacy exists like a cord between Daijiro, Kotoko and her sister, where interactions are unforced and there is a naturalness thanks to the casting and patient direction and editing. And then Kotoko suffers horrid visions.
During these visions Tsukamoto uses sound design, editing and camera movement in simple ways that allow us to experience just how bad these moments are and how dislocated Kotoko is. Normal sounds will fade out and sounds of the city will overwhelm everything. Babies crying, her narration about danger, the sound of traffic, jackhammers, machine guns and everything else irritating will be overwhelming and agitating. Visually the camera zooms in and out and shakes and will be jittery. Nearly every scene, the camera is constantly on the move, reflecting Kotoko’s mental condition and anxieties. There are crazy smash-cuts to odd and shocking scenes which smash whatever peace has been established. These extreme techniques are used are all reminiscent of Tetsuo and still work today.
Considering the nature of the film, it requires an actress with a magnetic presence and Coco proves herself to be such an actress. She is playing a character who is frequently unlikeable and seems unsalvageable but she is an interesting character who earns out sympathy because she cares for her child. Her surroundings and some of her conversations, narration and behaviour indicate that she is highly creative and intelligent. There are scenes where she sings acapella for three or five minutes at a time and they reveal that Cocco has a great voice and presence. I am not one for musicals or singing but with these scenes my attention didn’t wander. Cocco has a febrile presence which delivers paranoia and terror brilliantly but when she is calm, she is incredibly serene. The most important thing is that she tries but this is not a sugary confection and watching her struggle hurts which shows how much she got under my skin.
I’m not a bad person
Kotoko is a harrowing film to watch. The central performance from Cocco with all of its febrile tension, coupled with Tsukamoto’s direction has made a film which conveys how terrifying and debilitating Kotoko’s mental space is and as a result it is compelling because we want Cocco to overcome these problems and live a happy life with her child. The journey is rough and the ending worth striving for because it is strong emotionally and visually. Tsukamoto has made another powerful film.
The interview with Shinya Tsukamoto is extremely fascinating. At twenty-minutes it covers his collaboration with Cocco in making Kotoko (very useful for this review!), how he was inspired by her when writing Vital and the process of making Kotoko. He also talks about the current state of Japanese film.