For the last and final entry to October 2017, for Halloween, is a film I have been wanting to share for a long time, a favorite and possibly one of the great unsung films of the last decade. Tsukamoto Shinya’s Kotoko is a film like an atom bomb. Witnessing it is like witnessing pure terror, and pure honesty; humanity stripped bare of all superficiality and left naked. Kotoko is that rare work that finds emptiness in the psyche left unnoticed, and starts working mental muscles long left atrophied. While watching it, I felt the cinema form expand ever so slightly outward. Tsukamoto somehow outdoes even himself by creating a film that is so real to the human experience it is genuinely alarming.
Kotoko (Cocco) is a woman that sees double. That is, she sometimes sees two of people – one benevolent, and one malevolent. And she is never truly sure who is who. In the film’s earliest scene, Kotoko sees a father with his child, and the father’s double; one of the fathers lunges towards her, and she screams. Parenthood is desperately frightening. The film Kotoko opens on a beach – a young girl dances in silhouette as a flute pleasantly plays in the background. The flute becomes violent, and the young girl’s dance less playful. She disappears in a flash, and the image – literally – screams in agony. This is all fine and in line with psychological horror films until we see Kotoko at home, where there’s a baby crying in a crib. Oh no.
Kotoko is caught between protecting a life not her own and contemplating her own self-destruction. Early on, we see her cut her wrists in a bathroom, then beat up a woman on the street she thinks is threatening her baby (she’s wrong. It’s the nice, real double). To protect them both from her own violent distrust, she tries to isolate herself and the baby in a new apartment, but her baby doesn’t take. They go to the roof for air, and Kotoko drops her baby off the side (it’s “so dangerous,” she tells herself). In horror, she runs screaming down the stairs at what she’s done. But there’s no baby to be found – her child is resting safely in her crib. The baby has now doubled, and Kotoko herself cannot be trusted with a life needing her protection. Let alone her own.
All is well if Kotoko is singing. In an early standout scene, Cocco provides a performance – just to herself, although the film’s camera is conspicuously present – on the roof of her building, in the rain. This is clearly a cleansing ritual: The lens of the camera itself is covered in water droplets, allowing for our voyeurism, immersion, yes, but also manifesting tears – happy or sad, I don’t think it matters. Singer/songwriter Cocco, in her first starring role, gifts her character Kotoko a piece of her personal vitality, her soul peeling off on the celluloid like the rain on the lens. Cocco’s urgency with the camera is equal to the masterpieces of the genre: Shelly Duvall in The Shining, Isabelle Adjani in Possession, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist, but notably Björk in Dancer in the Dark. Her plight is painful because she, herself, is painful. It’s an all or nothing role, and we still get more than we bargained for. Cocco leaves nothing concealed – her eyes show bewilderment and horror in equal measure, like a human on an alien planet, or a rabid dog briefly aware of its surroundings. Tsukamoto said the idea for this “doubling” of characters in the film, and the anxiety is causes, actually came from Cocco’s personal experience – she suffers from this rare spiritual diplopia herself. Tsukamoto embraced this brilliant truth, and takes it to its far extremes.
To pry into Cocco’s and Kotoko’s internal states, Tsukamoto plays subtly with the film’s color palatte – we have not one but five different states of mind presented. Tsukamoto himself alludes to four of them: there is “the city, the landscape of Okinawa and the pinks of Kotoko’s room. White was also an important color because of her emotions, which I wanted to be “blank” at some point” – so, gray, green, pink, and white. And red. In an incredible one-take shot of Kotoko attempting to make stir fry with her baby in her arms, all her internal violence and danger bubbles up to the surface – it’s palpable – and she breaks down. Kotoko sends her baby to her relatives in the country (all the green) because she loves her daughter, but she also knows that with her screaming and writhing and self-imposed isolationist tendencies, she is the harm. At this point the picture dips into the darkest recesses of her psyche – reds and blacks, like the colors of the self-inflicted scars on her wrist.
At this point writer/director Tsukamoto enters the film as a character, seeing Kotoko in a state of despondence on a bus, singing to herself. Since Kotoko doesn’t see double when she’s singing, she at least trusts this stranger that much, and lets him into her life, but this is a life that accelerates her own masturbatory self-pain and self-hurt. Seitaro Tanaka (Tsuakmoto) and Kotoko here enter into a dance of torture and bondage, praying on their own doubts of themselves, one-upping their internal suffering by a gaudy and bloody display of one-upsmanship. The film stays here far too long for comfort, but it is a deliberate pain.
Tsukamoto here plays a similar role to his role in the brilliant A Snake of June – an outside instigator, a manifestation, of internal, repressed states of mind. He is a successful writer – his latest book is titled, “The Man Who Brightens the Moon.” In a way he understands her – each time he breaks into her apartment and finds her bleeding, or allows her to cut and beat his face to an unrecognizable mass of flesh, it’s a kind of connection that inhibits her fear of closeness. It helps her build callous on her fear of rejection. But eventually Kotoko starts to feel badly about his place as a self-sacrificial punching bag – during one harrowing scene (also one take), his statement, “I’ll be fine,” slowly becomes a repeated, “You’ll be fine,” sending Kotoko into a rage that he has to put down violently – it actually is the closest Kotoko gets to real connection, because it cuts right down to the marrow of her ennui and pity.
It’s much like Terence Stamp in Teorema (or since this is Halloween, Dr. Frank-N-Furter of The Rocky Horror Picture Show), where a character enters the fray of the character’s internal chaos for a one-night stand, adds sexual malaise, and leaves the place a mess without paying the hotel bill as thanks. All she has is the blood she licked off his cheeks before he eventually, disappears. The way its done leaves us to wonder whether he was ever actually there.
At this point, Kotoko’s child (now a toddler) arrives back home, and the film enters five-alarm terror mode. The stakes are real – besides the bodily harm we’ve seen Kotoko inflict on herself and Tanaka, one of the very first things that happens is the toddler accidentally stabs himself in the eye with a sharp pencil, the same one Kotoko has been using throughout the film. We see the eyepatch so it must have actually occurred. Soon, she starts to imagine all kinds of harm done to the child – reality and fantasy distort and conflate one another. Throughout Kotoko, Tsukamoto has been using long takes and to create discomfort, before resorting to extreme close-ups and quick edits to stop the heart. The climax of the film is a liberation through editing, building to an impossibility we always saw coming, but we (and Kotoko) refused to fully accept.
It’s hard to imagine after his three Tetsuo body horror pictures, but Tsukamoto has crafted quite an oeuvre of supremely feminist texts in his short time as filmmaker. In Tokyo Fist, two suitors beat each other to a pulp for the love of the woman, while she transcends them both, left thrashing in their masculine banality. In A Snake of June, a depressed housewife finds her sexual awakening and inspires her husband to rediscover her on her own sexual terms. In Kotoko, we have the last of an unsaid trilogy – we’ve gone from dating to marriage to motherhood. The end of each, much like his body horror films, is emancipation from Self. After a heart-wrenching sequence where Kotoko’s fears are manifested against her will – and her worst and deepest ambitions realized in what is, perhaps, infanticide – she is able to stand outside an asylum’s walls and dance in the rain in white. It is cleansing, her soul at rest, the fear of failure of protection finally released in an interpretive burst of physical beauty. When she comes back inside, a boy visits her, and gives her a gift – an origami crane. The teenager leaves, calling her Mom. We are left to wonder if this is a double, a fiction, or her reality. As this horror series has proven, what is imagined and what seen is – both, together in their terrible dance – always the truth.