Some parents pride themselves on knowing their teenage children, and some parents truly don’t have a clue. There is a fair amount of overlap between the two groups, especially when the teenagers try to please Mom and Dad while going their own sweet way.
One parent in the clueless category is Akikazu Fujishima (Koji Yakusho), a former police detective who left the force and divorced his wife after brutally beating her lover. He has since fallen into drunkenness and despair, while exercising his bad temper at every opportunity. Then one day, months after his sudden resignation, his ex-wife (Asuka Kurosawa) calls to tell him that their 17-year-old daughter Kanako (Nana Komatsu) has disappeared without a trace. Fujishima begins to investigate, starting with the bag Kanako left at home. Out tumbles a little box filled with illegal substances and Fujishima realizes that Kanako’s good-girl image was a facade.
Based on a novel by Akio Fukamachi, Tetsuya Nakashima’s “Kawaki” (which translates as “Thirst,” but is released overseas as “The World of Kanako”) displays a blend of high intensity, hyper-short cuts and flamboyant visuals that will be familiar to viewers of Nakashima’s previous films such as “Kokuhaku (Confessions),” and “Kamikaze Girls.” Also, the story of a down-and-out dad searching desperately for his estranged daughter, in a last-ditch attempt at redemption and renewal, has its parallels in many local dramas. But “Kawaki” departs early on from the usual girl-gone-missing melodrama by hinting that a hanky-wringing finale — one where dad and daughter tearfully reconcile, etc. — is not on the cards. And it’s not only because Fujishima is such a repulsive character, batting about the women he encounters with enraged abandon. Kanako, whom we first encounter in strobe-like flashbacks, is a vision of loveliness, elusiveness and what seems to be blithe, amoral indifference.
In one scene this teen goddess watches a delicately featured boy (Hiroya Shimizu) being ruthlessly bullied by school jocks with her lips curled into an amused smile. What hope does her father have of winning a heart that doesn’t exist?
But when Kanako deigns to befriend the boy, he can’t help being grateful — and more. “I almost feel like a human being because you are here,” he says in a voice-over. Perhaps Kanako, appearances to the contrary, is human as well.
Fujishima’s search, we see, is not only for his daughter’s whereabouts, but the contents, if any, of her soul. An old-school shoe-leather cop, he relentlessly tracks down everyone who knew her, from her psychiatrist (Jun Kunimura) and junior high homeroom teacher (Miki Nakatani) to former classmates, including hardcore clubbers who not only consume the same drugs as Kanako, but supply them. Not surprisingly, this trail leads Fujishima to the yazuka. Meanwhile, his former colleagues, including the sardonic, lollipop-licking Asai (Satoshi Tsumabuki), are connecting the dots between a series of murders and Fujishima’s quixotic quest.
As a thriller, “Kawaki” is almost comically over the top. Despite his frequent popping of psychiatric pills, Fujishima is a ball of rage whose abuses of his sources include rape and attempted vehicular homicide. In return he is subjected to beatings and other bodily insults that leave his white linen suit a blood-soaked mess. Nonetheless, Fujishima keeps rising again and again, like a potty-mouthed Lazarus.
Silly though the action becomes, Nakashima produces quick, kaleidoscopic cuts that not only impress with their coolness (insert music video comparisons here), but say something about the quicksilver nature of Kanako in particular and the Dionysian spirit in general, with its unsettling shifts from the angelic to the demonic, from the wildly celebratory to the unconscionably cruel.
In yet another iteration of the old nightclubs-as-dens-of-vice trope in local films, in “Kawaki” the glimpses into Kanako’s secret world in are less judgemental than representative of Nakashima’s dark view of the human race. There is not a pleasant character in the entire film, though some are less reprehensible than others.
Keeping it from shading to pitch black is Yakusho who may be playing, as he’s put it in press interviews, the ultimate bastard in Fujishima, but who can’t help radiating a bedrock likeability. Fujishima will do anything in pursuit of his fatherly mission, but he has never seen his daughter — only an illusion. She, in turn, never feels the pain of others; all that matters is her own freedom. He destroys with violence, she, with other means. Their ultimate destination? Oblivion.
Fun fact: Akio Fukamachi’s 2004 mystery novel “Hateshinaki Kawaki” has sold more than 360,000 copies, but was initially considered too lurid for a mainstream film adaptation, Tetsuya Nakashima read it and began writing his own screen treatment, which became the script for “Kawaki.”