“Tetsuo (Tetsuo: The Iron Man),” the 1989 film that made Shinya Tsukamoto internationally famous, was the cinematic equivalent of a jackhammer to the brain: harsh, loud, violent and unrelenting. But this cyberpunk fantasy about a salaryman transforming into a metal monster was also strangely hypnotic to watch and impossible to forget.
More than two decades later Tsukamoto is essentially still the same filmmaker, though he has not always made the same crazed, original film. One proof is “Kotoko,” his hallucinogenic drama about a single mother’s slide into psychosis that won the Venice Horizons Award at last year’s Venice Film Festival, but was treated harshly by the critics.
There were accusations of excess, which is somewhat like complaining to Godzilla about rough play. More to the point, he was charged with being repetitious and long-winded. It was the same as saying he’d become a middle-aged bore.
True, “Kotoko” is hardly an easy sit, but the mental illness that afflicts its title heroine, played by chart-topping singer-songwriter Cocco, is extreme in its confusion and fear. Also, the film views Kotoko’s illness mainly through her eyes — and she is the most unreliable of narrators, whose daily round is a procession of existential crises and terrifying hallucinations.
Venturing out with her infant son, she meets a neighbor woman who coos “kawaii” (cute) but splits into an evil doppelganger that viciously attacks her. This “double” would seem to be a product of Kotoko’s disturbed mind — but the pain and bruises are real.
After several of these hellish encounters, Kotoko finally breaks down completely and turns over her baby to the care of her sister, who lives an idyllic existence in the countryside. During her visits, Kotoko finds a measure of peace, but her demons are still waiting for her on her return. The only way she can feel her physical reality is by slashing her wrists until they are drenched with blood. The only way she can feel spiritually whole is by singing, though the tremulous beauty of her voice also echoes with her madness.
If this were all, “Kotoko” might serve as an extended music video (with Cocco not only collaborating with Tsukamoto on the story but also supplying Kotoko’s songs and the colorful/phantasmagoric art direction). Cocco steals the show, playing Kotoko in an inspired trance that alternately appalls and fascinates, despite her lack of film acting experience.
To put his own stamp on the film more completely, as well as to give it a semblance of a plot, Tsukamoto adds the character of an insecure middle-aged novelist, played by Tsukamoto himself. He falls hard for Kotoko, though on their first coffee date she sizes him up coolly, as she blows perfect smoke rings — and then, with cold ferocity, stabs his hand with a fork.
This relationship, which quickly devolves in an S&M bacchanal, is similar to those in many other Tsukamoto films — but by now the shocks, including shots of the novelist with a grotesquely swollen face from repeated (if unseen) beatings by the rail-thin Kotoko, are not only overfamiliar but verge on the blackly comic, perhaps by intention.
Also, as is usual for Tsukamoto, the soundtrack, save for Kotoko’s ethereally soulful vocals, is assaultive in its discordance and volume. Seeing the film the first time in a screening room, I started to resent the jolting.
Seeing it a second time on my PC, with the volume low, I felt my irritation fading — and my appreciation growing for the visual poetry of Cocco and Tsukamoto’s twisted, penetrating vision. Is this another case of middle-aged ears (specifically: mine) losing their elasticity? Quite possibly. But madness has its own music that insinuatingly whispers more than it shouts.