"Kotoko" by Shin'ya Tsukamoto: Unforgettable Experience

in 36th Toronto International Film Festival

by Pascal Grenier

Japan’s enfant terrible and cyberpunk precursor Shin’ya Tsukamoto has built quite a reputation since his debut in 1989 with experimental and breakthrough film Tetsuo: The Iron Man. This renegade filmmaker, who has drawn comparisons in the west as Japan’s answer to David Cronenberg, continues his obsession with human flesh and transformation with his new film Kotoko, viewed this year in the Horizons section at the Toronto International Film Festival.

This film stars female pop-singer Cocco (who also did the music and production design) in a courageous and gutsy performance as a single woman who suffers from double-vision and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown unlike anything you’ve seen before (a complete neural shutdown). The opening scene creates the tone for what is going to happen next: a woman is dancing and singing a lullaby on a wave of the ocean when suddenly a primal scream interrupts the singing and the woman completely disappears from the frame, as the shaky camera becomes frenetic. What ensues is a 90-minute intrusion into the mind and soul of a mentally challenged character whose visions of what is real and what is not are nothing short of confusion. As she tries to get back into reality, her emotional and social capabilities collapse into disarray.

Tsukamoto’s own distinctive style is very much on display here: his brilliant use of claustrophobic spaces, some physical violence and disturbing imagery, shaky hand-held camera and aggressive sound editing increase the experience in an unsettling and distorted kind of way. Less kinetic than some of his earlier works (Tetsuo films, Tokyo Fist), Kotoko is reminiscent, at least conceptually, of Robert Altman’s brilliant Images and even, to some extent, Polanski’s Repulsion. Comparisons aside, this challenging film stands on its own and can be seen as a singular take on a world gone awry seen through the eyes of one nerve-racked individual. As a moviegoer, whether or not you endorse the whole experimental proceeding or have any deep feeling or sympathy for the female lead character, this film is a truly distinctive and unforgettable cinematic experience.