REVIEW: Kotoko

Shinya Tsukamoto's most intense, brutal and realistic work to date

Premier: 8th September 2011 (Venice)
UK release date: 8th October 2012 (DVD/Blu-Ray)

Written by
Shinya Tsukamoto
Cocco (original story)

Directed by
Shinya Tsukamoto

Cinematography by
Shinya Tsukamoto
Satoshi Hayashi

Shinya Tsukamoto

Shinya Tsukamoto is an independent filmmaker who since the release of his 1989 breakthrough Tetsuo: The Iron Man - a surreal whirlwind of metal, bodies and stop animation - has been honing a style of filmmaking that is extremely distinctive yet ever-evolving. Tsukamoto's films revolve around nightmarish journeys into the subconscious and often explore conflicts and distortions of the human body: in this respect his films could be likened to those of David Cronenberg or David Lynch, both often delving into dream states and bodily transformations.

Tsukamoto's films have a distinct character to them due to the fact that he takes complete creative control over almost all aspects of the filmmaking process; Kotoko is released through his own Kaijyu Theatre production company and he is credited as writer, director, cinematographer, editor, producer, production designer and also acts in the role of Tanaka. This level of control has seen him carve out a unique and strong personality that can divide audiences, yet a film like Kotoko demands this independent focus and thrives because of it.

Kotoko tells the story of a single mother (named Kotoko) who suffers from severe depression and schizophrenia. Kotoko often sees double and finds it hard to distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary, the double in these cases will often live out her most violent fears - for example, a stranger trying to steal her child. The majority of the film plays on this tension of fear and vulnerability caused by depression coupled with having to protect an infant child.

The role of Kotoko is played brilliantly by singer Cocco who also provided the initial story for the film though interviews conducted by Shinya Tsukamoto surrounding her personal experiences with depression and self-harm. The ties that Cocco has to the character of Kotoko gives the film an extreme intensity and believability that is unlike anything Tsukamoto has featured in previous films, there is a weight to the character and the world she inhabits is brutally realistic.

One direct link between the actress/singer Cocco and the character she plays is the singing that features regularly throughout the film. For the most part when Kotoko bursts into song the vocals are left unaccompanied and lie bare, her singing has a desperate quality to it that feels both obstructive to the flow of the film whilst also being undeniably intense and emotional. I personally have a love/hate relationship with these sections but can appreciate how they add personality to the film and make explicit Cocco's connection to the character of Kotoko.

The cinematography has a strikingly clear and colourful look to it which when put side-by-side with the murky shadows and blue/orange filters of one of Tsukamoto's earlier films, Tokyo Fist (to be re-released Nov. 11th through Third Window Films), shows how far Tsukamoto is willing to experiment and push himself in aid of the story; the clarity of the image feels like a concious de-cluttering, lending the violent scenes a strong potency. The creative DIY aesthetic that is always a strong presence in Tsukamoto's work is still here in Kotoko, yet manifests itself in new and interesting ways: a lot of attention has been given to the film's set whereas I found that in earlier work the make-up, lighting and extravagant editing and effects tended to have dominance. There is a scene towards the end of the film that really highlights just how creative Tsukamoto can be with a set and shows how a film's set can be used dynamically to convey a character's emotions in a complex and imaginative way.

As with almost all Tsukamoto films there are scenes in Kotoko of extreme graphic violence, yet the film also displays a tenderness that is unlike anything the director has been able accomplish before, perhaps the closest he has come to this in the past would be the slight misfire that was 2004's Vital. The realistic feel of Kotoko's world gives weight to its intensities and makes for an often unsettling viewing experience. Some viewers may find the themes and images too graphic to watch, but personally I find it refreshing to see a treatment of violence on-screen that is emotionally and psychologically moving as well as visually shocking.

It is hard not to see Kotoko as a turning point for Tsukamoto, a new visual style has been marked out and a turn towards 'realistic' themes works surprisingly well overall. Fans of his previous films will undoubtedly find a lot to love within this film, a film that most closely resembles A Snake of June and Bullet Ballet from his back catalogue. Whilst not perfect - a few too many self-harm scenes and some slight pacing problems here and there - Kotoko is an undeniably unique and creative film that hits incredibly hard and leaves you with a lot to think about. An intense and brutal film that shows a different side to Tsuakmoto and makes me wonder where he might go next.


Released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Third Window Films

Posted: 21st June 2013


  1. Ponyboy Curtis26 June 2013 at 05:18

    I didn't see Vital as a misfire at all. It had a significantly different approach to narrative for Tsukamoto's style, but I felt that it worked as something different (and it even displays itself a little here in the last five or so minutes--feeling almost Kitano-y). KOTOKO was great, though it did have some major issues (such as Tsukamoto's rather abrupt disappearance, which I felt was rather odd, and there were a few jump scenes I felt were largely unnecessary); as for the singing, the very large section in the middle was very hard to stop watching.

    As a side note, I'm quite pleased to hear Third Window will be handling Tokyo Fist. The Manga Fox copy's subtitles are in an very distracting, ugly font which are almost invisible when the screen has too much white/gray underneath.

  2. Firstly, thanks for reading and for commenting. Means a lot that someone out there actually reads what I put out.

    As for Vital, maybe it was the Tadanobu Asano (who plays the lead) 'silent cool' acting style that rubbed me the wrong way... I loved him in Ichi The Killer but that's about it. I have to admit I liked Vital alot more the second time round but overall I'm not a big fan of it... my girlfriend absolutely despised it!

    Yeah, Third Window are doing Bullet Ballet too which apparently comes out on Christmas Day! I watched Tokyo Fist again recently and the burnt-in subtitles are awful.

    1. Ponyboy Curtis26 June 2013 at 12:27

      Haha I heard about the new Devo release and saw this in the related articles. I'm glad someone else has the same taste in bloody weird.

      Asano seems to have a very limited acting capability. He's much louder in Sogo Ishii's "Electric Dragon" if you can/want to check a copy of that. I'm used to that approach--Kitano does it ALL the time.

      (Also I'm a Cronenberg fan and I absolutely loved the autopsy aspect of Vital, so perhaps I'm a little biased.)

      Thanks for that info; I heard good things about their Tetsuo printing but the only Third Window I own is KOTOKO (and I own the Tartan releases of his other films myself). I suppose they do a good job?

      (and on a sidenote, I absolutely agree: I can't wait to see where he goes next. He's getting more mature and has been since...well, Vital.)


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