TIFF 2011: KOTOKO Review

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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TIFF 2011:  KOTOKO Review
As this years edition of TIFF winds down with only repeat screenings for the locals, in my particular film journey through the program, a small theme has emerged.  That would be parental anxieties manifesting as delusional horror; both the fear for the safety of their children, as the shame of the potential exposure as bad parents.  Nowhere is that more apparent than in what is possibly the best film I caught at the festival, Shinya Tsukamoto's Kotoko.  After the tepid reviews for Tetsuo III, and having exhausted genre possibilities in the Nightmare Detective franchise, it is nice to see the Japanese DIY master back at play in the headier, artier fare of Vital and A Snake of June.

Kotoko is a woman with some mental issues.  She often sees double, not a mirrored image or blurred vision, but rather two versions of the same person; one of them is real, the other is a menacing doppelganger.  On the streets in her neighborhood it is often difficult to tell the difference until the evil hallucination attacks her.  This causes enough stress that Kotoko has harboured a longstanding wrist-cutting habit.  It is not so much that she is suicidal - she completely wants to live - merely that she compulsively tests her bodies ability to take some punishment.  This would make a compelling story in its own right, but that Kotoko has a young child, Daijiro, in her care significantly ups the stakes.  The protection of her toddler is paramount, and often causes Kotoko and Daijiro to have to move around a lot when she attacks the wrong double (stabbing with a fork seems to be the preferred method) in defense of her baby.  Like many parents with young children, Kotoko often takes her eyes of the little boy to get things done around the apartment.  In her frantic, often hallucinatory panic to find Daijiro, Tsukamoto employs his signature manic camera style, a shaky forward rush, not really focused on anything but moving at significant speed, to the best effect in his entire filmography.  As a personal litmus, I have had the exact same experience as a parent on more than one occasion, and this is what it feels like.

Kotoko's condition eventually causes a temporary loss of custody of her child, who goes to live with to his grand-parents in the country.  She does visits when she can, spoiling the child with presents to assuage her guilt, in the meantime, attempting to pull herself out of the paralytic bubble of shame, guilty and anxious fears. Her meek neighbor, Tanaka, a published and highly-lauded author (played with quiet dignity and extreme body-punishment by Tsuakamoto) listens her singing soulfully on the bus one day as she rides one high ends of her bipolar mood-swings.  He flirts tentatively, but receives more abuse than intimacy:  more fork-stabbing.  This turns out to be Kotoko's way of testing her partner, and puts the poor man through some bloody abuse.  Tanaka's wounds as eventual soulmate and caregiver are difficult to look at directly making the film a difficult watch for a general arthouse audience.  An acceptance of sorts is received, perhaps even love as Kotoko's new partner, despite his rather alien relationship, comes to understand and accept Kotoko's illness and declares he will make 'loving you my full time profession.'  It is a powerful moment, and one that may ring true to many people aiding in family members or friends with sever psychological dysfunction.  

Shinya Tsukamoto never plays things maudlin, or even 'realistic' but keeps things at an operatic or tender pace.  An extraordinary performance from Japanese pop-star Cocco is fearless in a way you almost never see western actresses handle motherhood - the only exception that comes to mind is Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, it is also on display in Take Shelter, both at the festival this year - but even here there is an order of magnitude in how Kotoko is unlikable, almost a monster.  The film seems to ask a very resonant question:  "When does one put the breaks on emotion to not go crazy?"  To live life letting everything have the utmost effect (carpe diem on 'roids, if you will) is to quickly lose ones grip on sanity.   Kotoko defeats herself often by pulling too much in, yet picks up the pieces and soldiers onward.   There is times during the film where the colour palette becomes all pink and yellow, scenes out of focus - a visual explosion of everything that Kotoko sucks in.  Other times, a quiet moment here simply have her passionately sing or dance.  These moments are wonderful and tragic simultaneously, as there is a healthy women underneath all the anxieties; and her predilection for (literally) seeing the worst in people.  A clever use of umbrellas, and the old 'embrace the rain' cliche, visualize this question.  Kotoko refuses any emotional barrier, and it makes her unfit to function in normal society.  When you see her son, grown up later in the film, in the difficult position of seeing his mom institutionalized, there is hope.  He walks away, with a smile and a wave and toting a clear umbrella with the intent to put it to good use. 


  • Shin'ya Tsukamoto
  • Cocco (original story)
  • Shin'ya Tsukamoto (screenplay)
  • Shin'ya Tsukamoto
  • Cocco
  • Yûko Nakamura
  • Eiichi Takahashi
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Shin'ya TsukamotoCoccoYûko NakamuraEiichi TakahashiDramaHorror

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