Shinya Tsukamoto’s reputation as ‘the cyberpunk director’ is based on only two of his 26 credits as a director, Tetsuo, The Iron Man (1989) and Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer (1992) although in 2009 he did make the third film in this cyberpunk film series Tetsuo: The Bullet Man. My own favourite movie in his body of work, and one that I must revisit, is A Snake of June (2002), which is the story of a woman’s physical and sexual reawakening, but I am of the opinion that his latest movie may be his best film to date. Kotoko (2011) premiered at the 68th Venice International Film Festival where it won the Best Film award in the festivals Orrizonti section (new trends in world cinema), the first Japanese film to do so and premiered in the UK at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2012.
Kotoko is a young women who see’s double, self harms by cutting deep wounds into her arms and has a small child although she is not married. She is forced to change neighbourhoods when she beats up a woman for admiring her baby. Setting up a new home so their visits outside are minimal, but they are again forced to move for a second time. We then witness Kotoko on the apartment buildings roof where she drops the baby on to the concrete below, panicking she rushes back down stairs where she finds the baby alive and well in the flat. This occurrence proves she is incapable of caring for the child, so the authorities remove the infant and place it in the care of Kotoko’s sister. Following the baby’s departure she descends further into a deeper black depression with the self-harming getting worse. When she is allowed to visit her sister she finds that the child is no longer a baby but has grown into a toddler. While at her sisters she happily mixes with the other members of the family and we observe for the first time how content she has become. According to the rules of her controlled visit’s she cannot stay and returns home where the self-harming begins yet again. Suddenly Tanaka, a well-known writer, who unbeknown to her, has been stalking her since her bus journey to visit the child, approaches her. He had heard her singing on the bus and tells her he immediately fell in love and proposes marriage. But Kotoko gives her answer by stabbing him in the hand with a fork! Not being put off by his first failure he asked her out to dine where he proposes marriage again but the evening comes to an abrupt end when she stabs him in the other hand. Kotoko returns to her flat, Tanaka follows and panics when he discovers her covered in blood from another self-harming episode, even this does not stop him wanting to be with her. With her self-esteem at particularly low ebb the self-harming goes on but things begin to look up when both of them go together to visit her son. She assures him that she can be happy but then beats him so badly that he becomes unrecognisable. It’s eventually agreed that he can move in with her but she continues the beatings unabated. There turbulent relationship is a gruesome bloody affair with him being beaten without offering any resistance and her constant self-harming remaining unchallenged. He even offers to give up his only source of income to give him more time to look after this obviously demented woman. Things begin to calm down and the violence abates. The only time Kotoko really seems content and at peace with the world is when she is singing. A letter received from her sibling explains that the authorities are letting her son return to her. But on his arrival at her apartment she begins to think that Tanaka could have been a figment of her imagination and starts to see double again, obviously her mental state has taken a turn for the worse. When the child stabs himself in the eye with a colouring pencil she begins to get visions of his death. These visions of impending doom make her worry about the child’s safety so much that she attempts to strangle the child herself.
The film obviously is a very difficult watch made even more so when you realise that the actress playing the part of Kotoko, Cocco, has real life problems that mirror these in the film including the self harm and the deep depression’s as well as other acute mental symptoms and eccentricities, thereby actually able to live the part and not just act it. Included in the cast are her real life family members including her sister and her teenage son, with the director, who also did the cinematography, playing the rather unfortunate Tanaka. It was also decided that the cast and crew would be kept to a minimum so as not to overwhelm its star. Tsukamoto first met the J-pop artist when he was filming Vital in 2004 and decided to write a screen play based on her story. The movie’s lead character was based on a composite of Cocco and a fictional character called Ryoko but the main driver behind the character was to capture Cocco’s psyche. A very strong piece of work from the director who was right to cast someone in the lead role that he felt could put across a profound depiction of mental illness and the horrors involved. Cocco also had a young child so she understood the unique bond between mother and child that plays such an important role in the narrative.
If the film proves just one thing it is that some people can never really be happy as regularly portrayed in some lightweight ‘feel good movies’ would have us believe and for me Tsukamoto’s latest work is certainly the best antidote for that kind of genre. It has been made quite clear that any humour in this film was highly unintentional but like life, it can move from laughable to awful in a blink of an eye. Audiences around the world reacted strongly to Kotoko, with some people working out of screening. We have to face up to the fact that sometimes violent impulses instinctively exist in the human mind. The violence in Kotoko is not fantasy based but real situations and the overall feeling of despair haunts the movie. A commercially successful film that manages to keep the integrity of Cocco’s original work.