Kotoko – Written, Produced, Directed by and Starring Shinya Tsukamoto

Written, produced, directed by and also starring Shinya Tsukamoto (塚本 晋也), 2011, 91 minutes, out on release on DVD.

Review by Mike Sullivan

Shinya Tsukamoto has been in film making for many years and is well known for his horror movies, as well as movies that explore a transformative form of rage. His movies nearly always feature people who are not anywhere close to sanity with endings that are normally destructive. Violence is often an aspect of his movies; however it is violence which is consistent with the horror genre, while other films focus more on the violence of the mind. For example, in Body Hammer a man’s anger turns him into a human weapon while in A Snake of June a wife is blackmailed to do things she doesn’t want to do while increasingly her husband begins to enjoy the blackmail more than the guy doing it. In other words, when knowingly going to see a Tsukamoto movie one has to be prepared for perhaps unsettling scenes, mental turmoil and destructive violence. Kotoko was not only directed by Tsukamoto, it was also written and produced by him, and in line with previous movies he also stars in the movie.

The main character of the movie, Kotoko, is played by Cocco (真喜志 智子), a singer for many years this is the first time for her to act in a movie. In the last ten years besides she has released albums, art books, written for newspapers and published a novel, for this movie she not only starred as the leading lady but was also responsible for the art direction and music. It must have been with a lot of bravery that she took on this film role as she is the central character, but she is also a character suffering from mental instability. However, this was a role which she knew inside and out as she also wrote the original story from which Tsukamoto created the screenplay. It becomes clear in the movie that both Tsukamoto and Cocco have a vision which both understood very well.

The premise of the movie takes on a subject which is taboo in Japan, mental illness, and presents the plight of a single mother trying to raise a baby while suffering from her own personal demons which are not helped by anyone. The movie raises a lot of questions not only about how people with mental illness perceive the world, but how Japanese society perceives them, and how this can make things significantly worse. At the 68th Venice International Film Festival Kotoko won the Best Film Award in the Orrizonti section, this section showcases new trends in world cinema and this was the first Japanese movie to win this award.

The vast majority of the movie is entirely focused on Kotoko, she lives alone with her baby and has a job. However, as the movie opens it quickly becomes clear that she doesn’t perceive the world in the same way others do. In particular everyone appears to be two people to her, one is a kind normal person and the other is someone who wants to hurt her. One of the first scenes is perhaps quite representative of the whole movie, while working in a store to her right side a father is with his son looking at something while to her left side the father appears again just standing, looking menacing and staring at her. Suddenly the menacing version of the man runs at her with a clear intent to attack and she hides her head in her arms in fright. When she looks again there is no one there, just the father still with his son looking at something. In this way we can see that she fears both men and society, a common theme of the film is the way people just stare at her, not out of concern or worry, but as if she is not a person. In particular, whether because of a past experience or something else, she greatly fears the violence that someone else can do to her. The other aspect that we realise is that although she has clearly just had a scared reaction she is completely ignored by the real father and son, and again this seems to represent another side of society which if it doesn’t just stop stare at you, then it just pretends that you don’t exist. This serves as a double kick to Kotoko who constantly has to watch out for doubles of people, one that is dangerous and one that either stares or just ignores her existence. Every day once she is home she cuts herself so that she can prove to herself that she exists.

The one stable person around her is her son who she truly loves; when she is with him she seems to retain a small grasp of reality yet at the same time the fear inside her reaches new levels. She is not only scared of what people can do to him; she is also scared of what she could do if she is not careful. As an indication of the severe stress that she is under we see how when she holds the baby she constantly reminds herself to hold him securely as she fears so much that she could drop him. When she is outside she has to face two demons, the fear of others who appear in double form and the fear of anything happening to her baby. In this case when she perceives that the scary double is going to attack her baby she reacts violently, and subsequently has to move home. This appears to be a common occurrence, yet at no point do we see help of any kind for her, although she appears to frequently attack people and move home we never see the involvement of the police or any sign of anyone keeping a check on her. The overall picture is of isolation. On one occasion she hallucinates that she dropped the baby off the roof and runs down screaming to the ground floor, although we hear the sound of sirens and narrates how she had to go to all the other flats to apologise, we neither see the paramedics or police, nor the neighbours. They all remain faceless, invisible and unaccountable.

Eventually the combination of everything that is happening to her reaches a point where people can’t ignore it anymore and the baby is taken away to be given to her sister’s care. We are given the impression that if she gets better then she can get her baby back, yet she doesn’t appear to get any support and we see one short meeting with an unknown official woman telling her that it is common sense that a mother doesn’t harm a child. This short scene demonstrates a very big gulf between what is actually happening, a single mother struggling with mental illness and a child, and what the authorities perceive to be happening, a mother not taking proper care of her child. It becomes clear that she is on her own to ‘get better,’ while her sister’s family appear to be kind to her and caring about her child, however there is no discussion with her family about what is wrong with her or how to make her get better. It becomes another big silence in the movie as the family seem to just accept that she is who she is, but ignore the fact that she has a problem.

As she encounters a writer her obvious mental issues come to a head, and it is during one scene that she tellingly talks about her the universe is so big and there must be aliens out there, but we shouldn’t call them aliens because to them we are the aliens.