In 2011, the Venice Film Festival awarded Shinya Tsukamoto’s latest feature film Kotoko, the prestigious orizzonti award.
2011, the Venice Film Festival
awarded Shinya Tsukamoto’s latest
feature film Kotoko, the
prestigious orizzonti award. Although not being
the main prize the orizzonti represents upcoming trends in world cinema and is
therefore seen as being ahead of the pack. The surprising thing about Kotoko
being crowned in this area, is that it was the first ever Japanese film to win
Tsukamoto is best known for his surreal
cult classic series Tetsuo (also released this week on Blu-ray). Not
entirely dissimilar however, Kotoko is a more controlled piece than the
packaged chaos of Tetsuo. Kotoko is a young woman living in modern day Japan.
She has a young son, who is probably only a few months old. He requires a lot
care and thus can be quite demanding. Kotoko though, is slowly losing her mind.
She is haunted by visions the same person twice, in which she cannot understand
which one is real. To add to this, she is also a self harmer, who cuts her body
to feel more alive. This combination of violence and hallucinations causes her
to have severe breakdowns throughout the film but she always tries to put her
son first, sometimes even putting his life in danger. Needless to say, she is
struggling as a parent and social services deem her unfit to look after her
child, who is sent to live with her sister in her quiet countryside house. All
this happens within the first 20 minutes of the film’s opening. Those wanting a
chilled afternoon watch may want to go elsewhere.
Whilst it may seem like doom and gloom
all round, Kotoko does have some glimmers of light within her otherwise dark
world. Singing is one of her few positive outlets and it allows her to briefly
forget her awful circumstances and somehow transcend her world. Also, about
half way through the film she encounters a reserved and polite man (Tsukamoto
himself) who reveals himself to be a stalker. Initially it looks like he wants
to help Kotoko fight her demons but he quickly gets consumed by her world and
is also dragged into the violence.
The film that Kotoko most reminds you
of is Dancer in the Dark by Lars Von Trier. Dancer is also about
a struggling single parent who is going blind, but is cruelly framed for a
murder. To escape this torment, Selma sings to herself and creates songs by
using the sounds of her current environment. The comparisons don’t end there
either. Selma is played by Bjork, who is obviously a very famous singer.
Kotoko is played by famed Japanese folk singer Cocco. So famous in fact
that if you were to search Kotoko on Google, the first reference to the film
doesn’t appear until page 5. Much like Dancer in the Dark, the singing elements
of Kotoko are truly uplifting and are incredibly beautiful and moving. By
casting a professional singer in this role, Tsukamoto identified just how
positive a force music can be and just what a good talent Cocco is.
The biggest problem that Kotoko has is
that it is too much like a Von Trier film. The anguish and pain that is
subjected onto Kotoko is unrelenting to the point of torture. Problems are
never really addressed and her descent into madness gets worse and worse
without any resolve. The biggest criticism that often befalls Von Trier is that
his films are misogynist and are deliberately there to show the worst of
humanity without any overly positive things on show. Tsukamoto hasn’t gone
quite as far as that but this does merely feel like a homage to Von Trier. In
fact if Von Trier were to make a film set in Japan he would have probably made
There are things to like here though.
The camera work is beautiful and is really appreciative of the world around us.
Believe it or not there are actually quite a few laughs to have mainly at the
expense of Tsukamoto’s awkward stalker. Tsukamoto’s staple of body horror is
also extremely well done here and is incredibly realistic. The biggest shining
light of Kotoko though, is Cocco’s performance. Her pain is almost pouring out
of her in parts, as she just cannot comprehend what is happening. This is her
first role in a film of any kind (although she did work on the soundtracks to
some of Tsukamoto’s other films) so let’s hope that more acting work comes her
Despite winning the orizzonti over a
year ago now, you could be forgiven if you had never heard anything about
Kotoko till now. It seems to only be coming out on DVD to capitalize on the
obvious success that will be the Tetsuo Blu-ray. It may strike a chord with art
house fans but otherwise it will endeavor to find a wider audience. Perhaps the
similarities to directors like Von Trier and Aronofsky is what is
holding it back. There is a masterpiece somewhere within Kotoko that is
striving to get out but it seems preoccupied with other things.