Brutal, troubling and uncompromising, Kotoko offers a raw and visceral insight into the harrowing lifestyle those with mental illness face. Director Shinya Tsukamoto returns to his artier and more dreamlike style to produce a film which is both horrific and uncomfortable; ensuring he has succeeded in producing one of the most visceral and intense films committed to screen certainly this year and perhaps ever.
Titular character Kotoko (played by folk-singer Cocco in her acting debut) is a single mother living alone with her baby son. Suffering from an unknown illness, Kotoko has a form of double vision which results in her seeing both a good and evil version of events without any concept as to which is real and which is not. This affliction understandably takes its toll on Kotoko, with her evil visions and fears over the safety of her son, only compounded by the bad news items on display on TV.
As her behaviour become more fraught and erratic, Kotoko is deemed a liability and unfit to look after her son who is taken into the care of her sister. Left alone with her thoughts, can she overcome the affliction to win her son back or will she be cursed forever to live a life of fear, uncertainty and self-punishment?
Kotoko is a film which grabs its viewer by the scruff of the neck early on and maintains the intensity levels throughout. Tsukamoto embraces a natural style of filmmaking, eschewing the more technologically-advanced productions he has opted for in recent years in favour of a more basic hand-held camera style. Having become something of a gimmick derided by many and which can prove distracting in films, the employment of the shaky hand-held camera effect only serves to enhance the feeling of instability and claustrophobia within many scenes, particularly those in which Kotoko is at her most manic. Kotoko is not a film made to be a comfortable watch, thus making use of visuals which could induce motion sickness in many viewers as well as offering a voyeuristic documentary style makes for an ideal combination.
The male characters, fleeting in appearance, are almost consistently painted as unsavoury, untrustworthy, lecherous or unreliable.
Much of the success of the film hinges on the performance of singer Cocco who, despite making her debut, plays the role of Kotoko admirably. She is the lead in the purest sense of the word, being centre screen in almost every scene, and being responsible for the emotional heart and intensity of the story. Films depicting descents into madness and which focus on such heavy-hitting emotional trauma rely on the viewer making a connection with the main character and it is hard not to here with her pure and very raw performance wrenching at the heart strings and providing a real sense of fear and despair to what she must be going through.
Cocco drew on a degree of personal experience for the role, having admitted to self-harming in her younger years as she struggled to come to terms with her parents’ divorce. The story further embraces her real life by focussing heavily on her singing which provides not just an accompanying soundtrack but also plays an important role in the story. Kotoko is only able to think clearly and calm her inner demons when in song and it is these moments we increasingly long for as the viewer. They offer not only calmness for our lead but also a degree of respite for those watching as we get to listen to and be enchanted by her gorgeous voice.
While it is unclear if this was intentionally on behalf of the script writer, or if this is linked to Cocco’s own past, there is definite evidence of negative sentiment towards men throughout the picture, despite the fact it is Kotoko herself who is often the most manic and dangerous. The male characters, fleeting in appearance, are almost consistently painted as unsavoury, untrustworthy, lecherous or unreliable, with the state of Kotoko’s character raising significant question marks over the anonymous absent father of her child.
While not enough to fully detract from the movie, given their comparatively limited roles, there is some rather stunted acting performances from some of the supporting cast. However, this is easily overcome by the strength of Cocco’s performance and it is easy to see why the film became the first Japanese film to win Best Film in the Orrizonti of the 2011 Venice Film Festival.
Kotoko truly is a brutal and troubling film which includes a remarkable performance from an actor on her debut. It brings a terrifying insight into what life is like for those forced to suffer from and live life with mental illness and underlines how the world at its worst can seem a most hostile and unwelcoming place. It’s certainly not an easy watch and will not be to everyone’s taste, but is a film which nevertheless is recommended for those of a strong disposition.
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