Back in 1986, Shinya Tsukamoto began producing short experimental films with science fictional themes. One of these films entitled “A Phantom of Regular Size” featured a man living in a dystopian Tokyo being pursued, infected and ultimately transformed by a cybernetic spirit of the age, a woman in dark glasses and immaculate tailoring who could have stepped right out of The Matrix almost a generation later.
Phantom went on to form the backbone to a series of feature films that brought Tsukamoto to the attention of a global audience. Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer, and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man are all attempts to communicate what it felt like to be a member of the Japanese middle-classes at the end of a period of unprecedented economic growth that had completely transformed Japanese society in the space of a generation. These films portray the Japanese as a people worn down by the technologically sophisticated society that they themselves constructed. The opening scenes of Phantom are of a man in a subway convulsing with anguish as trains roar past like the blades on an enormous mincing machine. Every passage shaves away another ounce of humanity until there is nothing left but a host for technological infrastructure, as though the machine that had robbed the Japanese of their humanity was now putting them to work debasing and infecting the people around them. The early Tetsuo films not only diagnosed the sickness that was the late-20th Century Japanese experience, they also articulated what that sickness felt like by using imagery inspired by science fiction and horror.
Tsukamoto’s Kotoko feels a lot like a companion piece to the early Tetsuo films but rather than grappling with feelings of rage and alienation brought on by the experience of living under capitalism, Kotoko is all about articulating what it feels like to be a mentally ill single mother.
Kotoko (Cocco) suffers from a mental condition that makes her see double. Every time she sees another person, she sees them accompanied by an evil counterpart who will often try to attack either Kotoko or her child. The film establishes the basic parameters of Kotoko’s world in a wonderfully straightforward scene in which Kotoko encounters a man doting on a small child only for the camera to pan around and reveal a version of the man that is clearly a dangerous lunatic.
Unfortunately, the differences between real person and evil counterpart are not always so easy to discern as many evil counterparts hide their wretchedness before lashing out. This means that Kotoko is often faced with an unpalatable choice between either engaging with the first figure she sees and running the risk of appearing to talk to someone who isn’t there or ignoring the first figure she sees and so running the risk of appearing not to see someone when they try to talk to her. Given this choice between appearing mad and appearing mad, Kotoko understandably withdraws from society and refuses to go outside.
These psychotic interludes are pure J-Horror: The dark imagery, jerky camerawork, bizarre movements and anxious scoring could not be more familiar unless the evil figures all happened to have long dark hair obscuring their faces. However, as effective as these interludes may be, the real horror of the film lies in the suggestion that contemporary Japanese society would allow a single mother to battle mental illness with no help from friends, family or the state. Many mental health activists in this country claim that the stigmatisation of mental illness forces the mentally ill to live lives of miserable isolation and that is precisely what Kotoko is forced to endure. Camera angles be damned: This film is at its most terrifying when Tsukamoto switches to a realist register and shows us a vulnerable person trying her best and gradually losing ground.
In some ways, the film’s opening scene is deceptive. By showing us a case in which there is an obvious difference between real person and evil counterpart, the film encourages us to keep one foot in the real and concentrate on the various situations in which Kotoko loses her grip on reality. Indeed, much of the film’s power comes from its contention that the boundaries between reality and delusion are so unstable that they often do not matter to the character. The fungible nature of Kotoko’s experiences of reality and delusion are beautifully captured through the film’s use of colour.
Terrified of stepping foot outside her door, Kotoko changes her living space to create an indoor park. Initially, the new space is a warm and whimsical playground for Kotoko and her son but her condition’s refusal to limit itself to the outside world means that the warm reds and inviting pinks soon shade into blood reds and decaying browns. Desperate to keep herself rooted in the real, Kotoko begins self-harming but no matter how hard she concentrates, she cannot remain focused on the real world and she soon begins to imagine terrible things happening to her son, things that make her inability to cope apparent enough that the state finally steps in and orders the child be handed over to Kotoko’s sister.
Once separated from her child, Kotoko manages to land a menial office job (wittily represented as her sitting at a desk underlining the same photocopied text with a variety of different-coloured pencils). Forced to venture outside of her apartment for the first time in months, Kotoko realises that she is being stalked by a local man who turns out to be a fictional counterpart to the film’s director Shinya Tsukamoto. I use the term ‘fictional’ advisedly as while the film’s version of Tsukamoto is an author rather than a director, there is also a very real sense in which the fictional Tsukamoto’s desire to help Kotoko mirrors the real Tsukamoto’s relationship with the woman playing her.
The film’s version of Tsukamoto takes an interest in Kotoko and, when confronted by the oceanic depths of her problems, he decides not to run away but to devote himself to her rehabilitation regardless of the personal cost. At one point, he pledges to stop writing and another scene finds him being gladly pummelled in the hope that confronting Kotoko with the bloodied face of a person she knows is real might help her to learn the difference between reality and delusion. As unhealthy and hare-brained as this scheme might sound (what’s wrong with getting her to see a psychiatrist?), the relationship does bare fruits and Kotoko manages to win back custody of her child only for Tsukamoto to disappear in a manner that suggests that he might never have existed outside of Kotoko’s head. It is at this point that you begin to realise that the film is not interested in the difference between sanity and insanity, delusional and real, but the experiences of a single human being.
Kotoko is played by a woman named Cocco who is best known in Japan as a singer-songwriter. Considerably less well known is the fact that Cocco has a long history of mental illness that includes anorexia, self-harm and delusions similar to those that afflict Kotoko in the film. Cocco kept quiet about her history for a long time and when she did finally come forward and start talking about her experiences, some websites suggested that she should shut up or remain hidden lest she be seen to encourage anorexia and self-harm. Tsukamoto first met Cocco during the making of his film Vital and interviews suggest that he had wanted to make a film about her experiences ever since. Mercifully, when Cocco did finally consent to make the film, Tsukamoto appears to have bent over backwards not only to make her feel comfortable but also to provide her with as much creative agency as possible. While the film’s credits state that Cocco was involved as an actor, art-director, composer and writer of the story that inspired the screenplay, a better way of looking at Kotoko would be to see it as a film made by Cocco but with the assistance of Shinya Tsukamoto.
The film invites the audience to develop a similar relationship to reality as the film’s protagonist. At first, the distinction between real people and their evil counterparts seems simple and so we experience the character’s anguish at being unable to ignore the hallucinations and focus upon what’s real. However, as the film progresses and Kotoko’s relationship with reality becomes more tenuous, the film ceases to be about hard and fast distinctions and becomes instead about a blur of colours and emotions, each unimpeachably real regardless of their connection to the world. The film ends with a powerful scene in which Kotoko is visited by her now-adolescent son but Kotoko’s reactions to the boy combined with her past interactions with the fictional Tsukamoto lead us to suspect that the boy might not actually be real. In fact, Kotoko’s son might not have survived the incident that landed Kotoko in an institution. However, there is a very real sense in which the son’s actual existence does not matter as the truth no longer seems to bother Kotoko. Once upon a time, she worried about the differences between reality and madness but now she no longer worries and seems much happier for it.
Kotoko is not the first film to deal with mental illness and nor is it the first film that deals with mental illness by representing psychotic episodes as either changes in the world or movement towards a secondary world. However, many films that engage with these ideas do so by using thriller-style plots that end with the consolatory gesture of reality being re-instated upon the death or recovery of the protagonist. Though comforting to audiences made up of the currently mentally well, this movement has always struck me as trivialising to the mentally ill as it reduces their plight to that of people who are wrong: You thought the world was like this but actually it was like that. What distinguishes Kotoko from many of the films exploring similar ideas is its willingness to set reality aside and respect the emotional arc of the character regardless of where it leads. The result is an ending that is both upbeat and incredibly unsettling.
This upbeat ending would not have worked had it not been for the astonishing quality of Cocco’s performance. Right from the very first scene, her extraordinary emotional clarity binds the audience to the character and ensures that even the depths of madness can feel like a victory. We believe in Kotoko because we believe in Cocco and Tsukamoto is quite right to describe this project as her story.