While suffering from a mental disorder that gives her double vision, Kotoko has to take care of her baby as a single mother. The double vision makes it hard for her to seperate reality from hallucinations, and she's breaking down mentally. It leads to them taking her son away from her, giving her sister the custody. Now she's left with herself and her mind...
As a die hard fan of Shinya Tsukamoto, with his entire filmography in my collection, it's with great joy I am reviewing "Kotoko". When I'm asked who is my favorite director, there's no doubt that my answer will be Shinya Tsukamoto. He hits home no matter which theme he is focusing on. Whether it's a mature drama, a cyberpunk hell, disturbing horror or even pure cheese (hello, "Hiruko the Goblin"), he knows how to reach me. His attitude as a filmmaker shines through in everything he creates. Even after so many years of making films, he does it with a creativity and enthusiasm that keeps everything fresh. Today he might be working with lower budgets, but in "Kotoko" you couldn't possibly tell the difference between creative expression and budget restrictions.
In a story that is co-written by its star, Cocco, we're also allowed into her personal life. The themes of this film are based on her real personality. Although it's very likely it goes to this extreme: Kotoko is a single mother that is suffering from an illness that gives her double vision. This double vision is not your typical optical issue, but more like an hallucination. It causes her to see two of the people she meets, and one of the two is usually the good or bad opposite of the other. The question is, which one is real? She has learned that she doesn't have double vision as long as she sings. But this is not something she seems to take advantage of. Because of this, she's terrified of letting her child meet strangers. Ultimately, this causes her to decide that they need to isolate themselves in the apartment. But after a big breakdown which causes authorities to think she is abusing the child, they take it from her and give the custody to Kotoko's sister. Kotoko is allowed to meet her child now and then, but things are not the same. Kotoko's inevitable downfall involves her harming herself more and more. This is where Tanaka (played by Tsukamoto himself) steps in. He found himself fascinated by Kotoko after hearing her sing on the bus, and begins to stalk her in hopes to get her hand marriage. After realizing she is deeply troubled, he is still set on getting her love, so he (obsessively) tries to help her through it. By letting her harm him, instead of herself.
One of the opinion-dividing things about "Kotoko" is how much you feel that you have to understand about her. Her character is suffering greatly, but we're not fully being allowed into her mind. Personally, this made it all the stronger to me. As an audience, I quite enjoy feeling disoriented when dealing with mentally instable characters. It makes sense to me that you wouldn't be allowed to know it all. If you know how she thinks and how her illness works, you'll be able to figure out the consequences to actions in her surroundings. And that takes out a big load of the intensity that I get from "Kotoko". The moment we're forced to understand an illness, we're going to judge it accordingly. What Kotoko is suffering from is therefor a stranger to us, and it keeps it uncalculated.
The visual style of Shinya Tsukamoto is on top in this one. The shaky camera feels a lot more appropriate here than in "Tetsuo: The Bullet Man" (one of the things I at times found annoying in that film) because it feels part of the journey. Wherein "Tetsuo: The Bullet Man" it probably served as a modern tool to make it intense, and maybe get away with some effects. Here it's to visually present what's in her mind, it seems. The cinematography overall is great in this one. Some shots are among his best to date. A quite experimental scene towards the end where the kid toys starts to "live" and move around Kotoko is incredible. Equally great are the hallucinations, even though they are kept a lot more realistic (often violent, though).
You can rest assured that "Kotoko" offers some Shinya Tsukamoto trademark violence - quite over-the-top effects that somehow still remain realistic. It's what he does best. It's never as crazy as in the world of Tetsuo, and not as genre-bending as in "Toyko Fist". Rather it's exaggerated to make it more effective. And successfully so. The scenes of self-inflicted harm are pretty damn raw, while the scenes of a beaten Tanaka are more exaggerated. Then there's a scene towards the end that I think will work wonders with most viewers. Very strong and effective FX in "Kotoko" overall.
How can I wait until the sixth paragraph before I get into the acting of Cocco? It's not the violence nor the visuals that keeps this so intense. It's the acting of Cocco. Her intense screams are especially harrowing and can bring a chill up your spine in some scenes. You simply want her to stop, because they're so chaotic and quite frankly built a feeling of angst and panic in me. Of course, her acting isn't great only because of the screaming, but that's one thing that I think will leave everyone slightly scarred. They also use her musical expertise as a painkiller for her character, and even though this is not really a musical you can expect lots of music. In contrast to her horrific screams, her singing is slow and beautiful.
It's impossible not to compare her character with Björk's Selma from "Dancer in the Dark" - both played by singers so their characters burst into song, they're women that have problems with their sight, and it's something that causes problem with them taking care of their sons. But the films are really far from each other, so the reason I bring her up is because they are two very off-beat characters, and just like in Selma's case you can't help but feel like you want to push your hand through the TV to give a helping hand. You want to help, but there's no way how. Nor would you know where to start. The thing that seperates the characters is ultimately what keeps the films so far from each other in the end: Selma is one of the nicest people you can imagine, but she's driven by desperation. Kotoko is also a very nice person, but she can't control herself within our reality.
One thing I think was too vague in the film, however, was the use of war. War-times becomes a bigger part of the film towards the end, but sadly there is little build-up to this. Once it really serves a point we've kinda lost track on why it's there. We know that Kotoko is afraid of her child having to face people and horrors outside. This lack of security that she is feeling is heavily based on the war and knowing she can't protect her son from everything. The idea of it is excellent, but it could've been worked on more for the sake of the plot. The war does come to offer one of the strongest scenes within the film, so I can't say the use of it is bad, just not enough to really be a theme.
There is more to be said about "Kotoko", but I think I have to limit myself. Simply put, I really liked "Kotoko". Devastating, insane, intense and creative in a way that only Shinya Tsukamoto knows how. This is a lot more personal than many of his films, and one that I feel affects me more than most of them as well. Although it's not as good as his best work, I do think this ranks up high. Somewhere near "A Snake of June", I'd say. If you want to go through a series of tonal shifts, from depressing and sad, to violent, to semi-surreal and finally to almost comedic at times, then check it out. Shinya Tsukamoto remains on top!