A self-harming Japanese femme isn’t cut out for motherhood in “Kotoko,” a low-budget effort from cult actor-director Shinya Tsukamoto (the “Tetsuo” trilogy, “Vital”). The helmer here tries to go one step beyond his recurring obsession with the human body and invest his lead with some psychological depth to match her incised arms. But because he employs his usual assault-on-all-senses tactics, the gamble only partially pays off. Not schlocky enough for J-horror fans and too bloody for serious arthouse patrons, “Kotoko” will probably be stranded in a commercial no-man’s land theatrically.
The director has teamed with wiry, mono-monikered singer Cocco for this small, digitally shot film, which feels largely improvised. Cocco not only plays the lead alongside Tsukamoto but the actor-director and his star also split most of the below-the-credits between them.
Cocco is Kotoko, a mentally unstable single mother. She lives in constant fear something will happen to her young son and she won’t be able to protect him, effectively suggested in some early scenes in which Kotoko goes out with her child and imagines random passers-by attacking them for no apparent reason. They are the first instances of the pic’s tendency to show auds what is happening in Kotoko’s mind rather than in reality, a recurring device that allows Tsukamoto to gradually let the film slide into psychological-horror territory.
Whether her self-harm tendencies developed as a form of postnatal depression or have always been there isn’t entirely clear, though the protag explains in v.o. that she cuts herself not because she wants to die but to see if her body still allows her to exist.
Before long, her young child is taken away from her, leaving Kotoko to her own devices. Things start to look up when she meets a bestselling novelist (played by the helmer) who is so in love with her that he continues to court her after she’s nailed his hand to a table with a fork — twice — her usual way of dumping men. What hooked him was her haunting singing voice, natch, and the only time Kotoko seems able to abandon herself completely is when she’s caught up in song (showcased in scenes that are allowed to run on for much too long).
The fork-stabbing incidents foreshadow some of the common ground between the characters, which in turn means that their relationship is not necessarily a stabilizing factor or the first possible step on the way to redemption and a happy, reunited family. However, Tsukamoto’s handling of the different plotlines and psychology here grows increasingly murky, not least where his own character, who suddenly disappears from view, is concerned.
The aggressively loud soundscape and trembling handheld lensing might help sketch the protag’s febrile state of mind, but like similar films, such as Noomi Rapace-starrer “Daisy Diamond,” it can be so taxing for auds to sit through the constant sensory bludgeoning that any subtler message is lost.