The opening scene of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Kotoko very much sets you up for what to expect from the rest of the film, a placid, and almost beautiful beach scene and then sudden loud thundering screams. Kotoko is a single mother suffering from a mental condition that causes her to see double; reality and a version of reality that is trying to harm her or her child, and dealing with trying to distinguish between the two. As a way of confirming her reality, and her level of control, she starts to cut herself but she also eschews the outside world as much as possible to avoid the nightmarish visions and to protect those around her from violent outbursts when she perceives the hallucinations as reality.
Her condition leaves her in a perpetual state of confusion, early on she believes that she has dropped her son, Daijiro, off the roof of her apartment building only to find out after alerting all the neighbours that he was safe in her apartment. Well, shall we say ‘safe’ in massive air quotes, as it’s obvious this isn’t a stable environment in which to bring up a child and ultimately he is taken away from her when it’s believed that she is abusing him. A fact that unfortunately only leads to further mental breakdown.
In truth no one will ever be able to claim that they enjoyed this movie, that’s the wrong word, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. It sustains a level of intensity from start to finish that is at once a great achievement and the reason why it is very difficult to watch. Kotoko is uncomfortable in so many ways; visually because of the graphic scenes of mental and physical pain, self-harm, and fairly extreme violence to others (although it is in no way the most extreme movie to come out of Japan), but mainly for the story and the emotions, the whirlwind of confusion and pain that is created from Kotoko’s suffering is just difficult to behold.
The way in which Shinya Tsukamoto, who wrote and directed Kotoko as well as appearing as Kotoko’s partner in a disturbing sado-masochistic relationship, has shot and edited the movie means that whilst the imagery is horrific it’s depicted in a way that is compelling, and at times beautiful. There is a horrifying sensory overload at times of Kotoko’s distress, and at others moments of peaceful, yet equally disturbing, calm. The very fact that I would like to describe this movie as fucking awful is to it’s credit, that is the intension, as it is dealing with a very harsh reality and subject matter and does so in a way that blends real worlds with fantasy in an alarmingly strenuous experience. Cocco, upon whom the film is partially based, is to be applauded for her depiction of Kotoko, to portray such a complex character with such realism is staggering.
As the story progresses what is real and what is not becomes less and less clear and some of the more brutal scenes are called into question as Kotoko, both the person and the film, collapses into a complete state of mental unbalance. The ending is, quite naturally, bleak as it’s a logical extension of the tone of pain that runs constantly throughout. It would be aptly titled a masterpiece of pain, and with that association you can gauge whether or not it will be something you want to see. As stated, you won’t enjoy Kotoko but that doesn’t mean it’s not a brilliant piece of cinema, in fact that’s the very reason it succeeds, it portrays its subject so completely that the disturbing mental choas of Kotoko is mirrored in the discomfort of the viewer.
Kotoko is available now on DVD and Blu-ray, as are Tsukamoto’s classics Tetsuo 1 & 2 (review to follow)