reviewed by Tom-Tom
Japanese horror is always more terrifying when it relies on its very national roots, ambiguity, shadow, silence, polite albeit unreliable narrators. Horror doesn’t need monsters or even killers. All it needs is the inside of a person’s mind trapped in his or her own world. “Kotoko” is such a film. It opens with a woman or girl dancing fiercely on a beach. The sun is setting or rising over the sea so the shape can only be seen in shadow. The background music is eerie: a mix of a child’s xylophone and a Japanese shakuhachi, a wooden flute with a deep, breathy timbre. Her dancing has no pattern: it seems to begin with ballet, continue with modern dance and develop into a shapeless fury of arm rolling and head flailing and ends with a bloodcurdling scream shown by a shaky camera with the shape just out of the frame.
The scene changes to a awkward looking 20 something woman with wide set eyes and sensually thick lips. Several strange facts become apparent quite quickly. She “sees double” meaning she sees doppelgangers of adults one real, one sinister and threatening. She cuts her arm with razor blades not to die, she calmly narrates, but to force her body to want to live. She has a newborn baby perhaps 6 months old whom she loves although her fear of dropping him or otherwise losing him terrifies her. It terrifies us too as we already know this is no normal mother. Perhaps, attempting to create a claustrophobic feel, the camera is always in too close and is rather shaky at times. This isn’t a film to watch with the windows open as there are random bloodcurdling screams from both mother and baby. Her child is taken away to live with her sister. She has a habit of stabbing the hands of men who flirt with her with a fork though whether this is reality or imagination is difficult to tell. She smokes blowing Gandalf like rings through her teeth and turns on the TV on to terrible news of violence to children every time just to switch it off.
She is stalked by a famous novelist who overhears her singing on a bus which she does to cease seeing “in double” by the way. He gets stabbed in both hands but is undeterred. He is determined to save her from herself even at the cost of his own physical well being. This is an odd film. It’s mainly due to the fact that there is no background information to why things are the way they are. We’re dropped in the middle of her strange life with all of her random bouts of singing, cutting, abusing the novelist and singing some more. This is indie filmmaking at its most cash strapped. Her songs have an Okinawan feel to them in the notes she uses and sure enough, Cocco who plays the title character Kotoko is a native of Naha and a singer/songwriter.
Her temporarily idyllic life changes when her son is returned to her and her hallucinations reach their climax as the news reports escalate to armed gunmen shooting at her from in the TV no matter what channel she chooses. She is driven to the brink of madness concerned for the safety of her son in her own misguided way. The final minutes of this film owes much to handmade, perhaps child-made special effects which reveal themselves without explanation or purpose but maybe with some meaning, loss perhaps.
Kotoko isn’t for everyone. The shaky camera and the random bouts of singing and extended physical scenes of repeated entreaties that all will be well, all is well can be quite tasking. It could even be considered a rather long albeit weird music video for Cocco. In fact, all the film’s music was written by her. If we leave this film with anything, it’s a portrait of a wounded mind with a loose grip on reality. Unfortunately, that’s not enough for me to give it a recommendation.