‘I don’t see double when I’m singing’

Winner of the Orizzonti Award at the 68th Venice Film Festival, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Kotoko is released on DVD. It’s another low budget independent film, which presents a disturbing and emotional look at the life of a single mother whose very being is more than an existential condition but an altering reality that is often immersed in actual or delusional fervour.

Kotoko (played by Ryukyuan folk rock singer Cocco) has multiple problems. She has a very fragile grip on the reality that she may, or may not, be living. Often there are multiple people around her, often the same one, albeit the same one that could easily be a violent and confrontational version of the other one. Sometimes the love of her life, her little boy Daijiro (‘what a cute baby’) is there in the apartment with her. But not always. Indeed Daijiro is taken away from her and placed under custody by the authorities, concerned that she may harm him, something that, despite her clear love for her baby, is shown by a series of events that are shocking – even to her. Kotoko’s sister takes Daijiro into her care, at least temporarily. The violence that Kotoko sees and fears is not just limited to those she encounters and their possible doubles, she also has shocking tendencies to self-harm, with blades causing rivulets of blood to flow down her arms, staining parts of her residence crimson. She’s afraid to form relationships and resorts to vengeful violence, stabbing the hand of her victim with any fork available, if they try to get close at the dining table. Is her perception of reality actuality or some deeply graphic paranoid hallucination? She is unaware about what help is genuinely at hand. Tanaka (Shinya Tsukamoto), a local man who also is a renowned author is infatuated by her and willing, it seems, to engage in any practice or whim she desires, in order to try to start a relationship. But at what cost? Kotoko may sing and dance to maintain a sense of normality even when attempting to commute on a bus, but is this enough to have a true perception of reality and a genuine relationship with her beloved son?

Right from the very opening, this is undeniably a work by auteur Tsukamoto, both in the clear aesthetic outcome of the finished product but also his involvement with the production – he wrote the screenplay, produced, directed, acts in the main supporting role, provided key cinematography and edited. Welcome additional contribution comes from Cocco, the titular star of the film who also provided the original story and art direction, as well as the songs that are intrinsic to the story. Rather than the worrying prospect of a self-indulgent self-promotional commercial extravaganza, Kotoko knocks any concerns of this nature aside because the songs are so fundamental to the melodrama, especially given the character’s upsetting situation and the violent version of reality that swirls around her. In many ways, the multiple aspects of Kotoko’s personality and its delineation to whatever existence there may be is depicted in a manner that isn’t stereotypical, and is something notable about many of Tsukamoto’s films, for example, A Snake of June (2002) and Tokyo Fist (1995).

Most important is the way in which Tsukamoto unravels Kotoko’s story and the character’s attempts at understanding her world, her environment and her time frame (time is not linear within the film nor for the character) through cinematography and editing. The use of hand-held camera makes for intense viewing and the editing helps place the action in a context that progresses matters. It’s a contrast to the excellent but visually exhausting speedy multi-shot 16mm celluloid work of say Tetsuo (1989). The approach here makes the horrors portrayed far more personal, particularly when it comes to depicting the self-abuse, but also in a notably graphic single shot – a shot that is unexpected, disturbing and deeply affecting to the viewer.

Kotoko is an experience, running the gamut from uplifting (the motherly adoration of her son, Kotoko’s songs) to the disturbing (the darker sides of Kotoko’s character and her self-harm) that are as deliberately confrontational for the viewer as the protagonist. But for all its scenes of shocking violence, this is a film that does have tremendous emotional depth which helps the audience sympathise with the character. If maternal love is not something you would assume could emerge as a theme in a Shinya Tsukamoto film, then be prepared to be surprised. Together with elements of stylistic implementation and bloody confrontation, Kotoko is another sterling addition to the oeuvre of one of Japan’s most impressive auteurs.