Festival veteran, Japanese DIY master, Shinya Tsukamoto has earned a devoted cult following for his unnerving explorations of the junction between body and technology, most notably as seen in his Tetsuo films. Kotoko serves as both a union of themes explored in his previous movies while investing his lead with some psychological depth. Now the genre master delves beyond the flesh and into the mind, in this case, that of a single mother suffering from Postpartum depression- a serious form of clinical depression which can affect women, typically after childbirth. Symptoms include fatigue, insomnia, reduced libido, bodily harm, anxiety, and irritability. It’s unclear when Kotoko’s illness began, but it appears to be getting increasingly worse as our protagonist explains in a voice-over that, “she cuts herself not because she wants to die but to see if her body still allows her to exist”. With Kotko, Tsukamoto creates an organic, if abrasive film that explores anxiety and paranoia in motherhood.
Organic, abrasive, and horrific…
For this low-budget effort, the director teamed up with pop sensation singer Cocco, making her big-screen debut. Coco delivers an extraordinary performance as the titular character, a fragile woman suffering from violent paranoid delusions, that places her child in harm and eventually taken away from her. As well as writing, directing, editing and collaborating on the cinematography (with Satoshi Hayashi), Tsukamoto himself, also stars as a novelist named Tanaka who develops a strange relationship with Kotoko- a twisted romance of sadism, marked by drastic stabbings and several beatings. The performances appear to unfold naturally, as if improvised, with little staging but a lot of screaming and yelling. Throughout the story, it’s difficult to differentiate what is real and what is fantasy but the edits are all so well interwoven into her experience that they never break the pacing or tone of the pic.
Tsukamoto gradually elevates the film into psychological horror, with the bulk of the running time focused on Kotoko’s surreal nightmarish hallucinations. Tsukamoto shoots with many long takes and a cinéma vérité style to capture the heartfelt interaction between Kotoko and her son. The soundtrack is unnerving, the camera is constantly moving and the shots are extremely close. While the technique is designed to mirror the trajectory of Kotoko’s own increasingly fractured perception, the handheld camerawork can be a bit jarring and the aggressively loud soundscape by Masaka Kitada (who also worked on Nightmare Detective and Vital) is extremely taxing for audiences to sit through. Apart from a few quiet moments in which we are treated to Coco displaying her impressive vocal talent, viewers might be left with a trashing headache. While these stylistic choices worked well in the director’s previous works to inform the tone of his films, Kotoko is need of something more and lacks one major component – a well-drawn and convincing family portrait, so as the audience truly cares for mother and child as appose to being distracted by the technical impressiveness on display.
Apparently Tsukamoto is such a big fan of Coco’s work that he shot a 24-minute short that was inspired by three of her tunes, which functioned as a blueprint for Kotoko. Coco helped him design the character of Kototo by contributing ideas such as the character’s haunting doppelganger, and also served as the production designer and composer for the film. The film’s ultimate problem is that it never truly justifies extending these ideas into a form suitable for a feature-length piece. The result here is overwhelming and often unbalanced.