Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: Kotoko

The Joys of Motherhood

If you're susceptible to motion sickness, be warned! Kotoko may just be the shakiest film outside of the found footage genre. The camera in veteran Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto's (the Tetsuo series, A Snake of June) latest production is in almost constant flux: it's the rare shot indeed where the camera rests on a tripod or flat surface. In a break from tradition, however, the uncertain and deceptively amateurish camerawork is actually entirely motivated in its hyperactivity.

Kotoko (Cocco) is a single mother, and she's a wee bit troubled. She's desperately trying to care for her baby boy, but unfortunately her disturbed mindset provokes her to carry out daily acts of self-harm to reassure her she still exists. The biggest problem is that her increasingly unstable mental state is in danger of effecting others, perhaps even her beloved child. After a few particularly dangerous incidences, the boy is taken away by the authorities, and put in the care of Kotoko's sister while the young mother recovers. Can she find salvation in infatuated writer Seitaro (played by the director himself)?

Kotoko is not a happy go luck sort of film. It's a full-on assault of grimness from the very beginning (barring a deceptively beautiful opening shot), with the infrequent peaceful diversions very brief indeed. It's a nightmarish film, most obviously during a explicitly surreal sequence towards the end. The dividing line between reality and fantasy is always uncertain, with the protagonist constantly seeing double and imagining all manner of terrifying, violent events. Indeed, entire characters may be figments of her unstable imagination, including poor, well-intentioned Seitaro.

Cocco does an absolutely magnificent job in the title role: she is both physically and emotionally committed to the torment of Kotoko. Skeleton thin and constantly jittery, it is a distrubingly wonderful performance. And a good thing too: with the film shot almost entirely in mids and extreme close-ups, Tsukamoto puts a lot of faith in his cast (including himself). With all other roles relatively minor, Cocco almost single-handedly carries the film in terms of acting. It's a performance that makes up for very low production values (there's even a shot where the lens is covered in raindrops), although the down and dirty visual style is actually a benefit, enhancing and reflecting the frame of mind of the protagonist.

Kotoko as a film does have a tendency to veer towards the repetitious, and the endless stream of grim means this is far from an easy watch. It is most certainly an ordeal by design. The middle act suffers after a visceral, exhausting opening half hour that Tsukamoto never quite manages to improve upon over the subsequent hour or so (although the ending is excellent). Overall, however, he has crafted an unusual and extremely dark portrait of a woman in physical and mental crisis. While Kotoko is by no means an evening's light entertainment, it is an uncompromised, intense and low-fi nightmare that fits comfortably into Tsukamoto's existing filmography.

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