I have mentioned a number of times on this blog how I am drawn to movies about mental illness. There is something so interesting about the brain not functioning as it should and it usually gives a director a chance to explore the issue with quite inventive visuals. Emotionally, if done well, these films turn out to be harrowing and can be quite frightening too. Shinya Tsukamoto’s latest film “Kotoko” is one of these films. It is a very personal and raw account about a single mother, who suffers from depression and a number of mental issues, trying to bring up her son in today’s violent world.
Living in the bustling city of Tokyo, single mother Kotoko is struggling to keep it together. She suffers from a unknown disease which makes her see double, although this is not the normal version of that affliction. Instead when she sees people, she sees a good and bad version of each person and she is never sure which version is the real one. This terrifies her immensely and as a result she hides herself and her baby in their tiny apartment. The only time she does not see double is when she is singing, which is something she obviously loves as it brings everything together and gives her the ability to focus properly. However looking after a baby gives her little time to sing and cooping herself up in the apartment only intensifies her issues until she ends up having a serious breakdown. Declaring Kotoko to be an unfit mother, her son is taken from her and put into the care of Kotoko’s sister, and will only be returned to her once she has gotten well again. This proves a much harder task than anticipated as Kotoko’s downward spiral continues while she misses her child. Her visions increase and her self mutilations become more regular as it appears that Kotoko will not be long for this world. One day, though, when travelling on a bus absent mindedly singing to herself, she awakens another passenger who is mesmerized by her singing. The passenger, Tanaka, turns out to be a famous novelist who ends up being obsessed by the disturbed girl, and begins following her in an attempt to get her to fall in love with him. While she initially is uninterested, it is when Tanaka notices Kotoko’s problems that he really commits to her to try and get her healthy once more. Has Kotoko finally found her way back towards happiness and a chance to have her son again?
“Kotoko” is an incredibly dark and emotionally powerful experience. It is not an easy film to watch as it goes to a number of very uncomfortable places. Kotoko is played by Japanese pop singer Cocco and she is devastatingly good in the role. The reason why this is such a personal film is because a lot of the elements of the character of Kotoko come from Cocco herself. She herself suffered from depression and repeatedly resorted to self harm and she is also a mother of a teenage boy. “Kotoko” is Cocco’s acting debut and it is nothing like the vanity projects often seen by U.S singers doing their first movies. In fact it is almost anti-vanity because she lets her fans see her in such a negative light, that it really is such a brave performance. The fact that the character sings to find inner peace, you may think that this is when the pop star would come out and show her stuff but surprisingly all of the singing in the film is quiet and understated. This is nothing like “Burlesque”, instead the musical pieces keep in tune with the intimate and emotional journey Kotoko finds herself on. As I mentioned, Cocco’s performance is heartbreaking as she plays a very sick woman who finds herself doing terrible things. She is in such an emotional state for the entirety of the film that I can only imagine how intense and tiring filming it would have been. Throughout the film she is seen cutting her wrists, stabbing the hands of unwanted male suitors with forks, even attempting to kill her own child; she is almost constantly covered in blood but the emotional pain she is going through appears to be a whole lot worse than the physical.
Her saviour comes in the form of a guardian angel named Tanaka who is played by Shinya Tsukamoto himself. Tsukamoto is no stranger to acting in his own films but initially had no intention of playing the role in “Kotoko” until Cocco encouraged him to take it. As usual he is great in the role and actually brings a lot of dark humour with him into the picture. One of the funniest moments in the film is when Tanaka breaks into Kotoko’s apartment and finds her bleeding profusely after cutting her wrists (sounds hilarious, right?). First off he faints, but after he regains his composure, he begins to look for something to stop the bleeding in a panic. He grabs the baby’s clothes which Kotoko refuses to use, and then he comes out with a diaper before finding a towel. It may not sound funny, but it actually is and it gives the audience some relief from all of the darkness they have witnessed previous. However due to the dark nature of the film, there is a lot of disturbing scenes with the Tanaka character too as he decides to become a human punching bag where Kotoko can unleash her anger out onto, instead of on herself.
Directorially Shinya Tsukamoto is at the top of his game again with “Kotoko”. He never shies away from how disturbing the subject matter is and there is not a hint of sentimentality throughout. He never judges Kotoko for her actions rather he just presents her story to us. As usual Tsukamoto uses a lot of handheld camerawork and the “shaky cam” look is prevalent throughout. It is funny how much I hate this type of look and style of filmmaking except it never seems to faze me when Tsukamoto uses it. It always seems to have a point and here it represents just how disturbed Kotoko’s mind truly is. Despite the use of handheld, “Kotoko” is a beautiful looking film filled with gorgeous colours. Visually the film is most similar to Tsukamoto’s 2004 film “Vital” and like that film has a number of beautiful dance sequences, these scenes bookend both the start and end of “Kotoko”. Tsukamoto made the brave decision to have the character of Kotoko be the film’s (unreliable?) narrator. Narration can be so hit or miss in cinema and is often used lazily, but here I thought it added a lot to the film as it gave us more insight into what exactly was going through Kotoko’s head. The other standout of the film is its amazing soundtrack. A lot is done aurally in “Kotoko” particularly when she is having one of her attacks. Interestingly Tsukamoto has stated that the film has the theme of an impending war strewn throughout but with the exception of a scene towards the end I never picked up on this at all. His point is that he feels a lot of parents are terrified of the fact that a war may happen soon and the current generation of kids would have to fight in it. Like I said, the notion of war went over my head, but I did pick up on the fact that he was saying that the world has gone crazy and is increasingly violent and for what purpose should we bring a child into this world now.
In relation to this, the “double” vision that Kotoko suffers from also comes from the amount of fear you have when you become a parent. Suddenly things that once seemed so normal you look at with different eyes and can see how your child could hurt themselves on. A common table is just that before children, but after you have kids it is dangerous due to the sharp corners on it. This is a basic example, but I think that Kotoko fears for the safety of her child only amplify her mental condition. It is definitely something I can relate to because I always see things from the negative point of view. Actually negative is the wrong word, I always notice what could happen which takes the innocence away from certain things.
Tsukamoto’s films are known for their violence and “Kotoko” is a very violent film. However unlike the majority of his other films the violence here is handled in a very realistic manner and as a result is likely to disturb a lot of viewers. There is a scene towards the end that is particularly shocking especially if you are a parent and to be truthful I was stunned that Tsukamoto went as far as he did with it. Apart from that scene there is a lot of self mutilation, so blood exists prominently in “Kotoko” so if you are squeamish you may want to beware. A theme that was introduced in “Vital” reappears here in “Kotoko”, as Tsukamoto seems to indicate that the towering city of Tokyo contributes to the madness and insanity of people, which they seem to lose when moving to the country. This is true in “Kotoko” as she appears her best in the film when visiting her son and sister at their country home. In fact all of the characters who live in the country appear relaxed and normal as opposed to the intensity and speed of the city.
Overall I found “Kotoko” to be an incredibly disturbing and raw experience, as well as an emotional one. However it was also a great one. The lead performance from Japanese singer Cocco is outstanding (she also handled music and art direction duties on the film) and the film is anything like a vanity piece for her. “Kotoko” goes to some dark places and corners of the mind but if this is the kind of cinema you respond to, you should rush out and watch Shinya Tsukamoto’s latest,; the man is once again at the top of his game.