A father’s search for his missing daughter takes the “little girl lost” scenario to gruesome extremes in “The World of Kanako,” a relentlessly unpleasant and ultimately banal journey into a broken family’s heart of darkness. Writer-director Tetsuya Nakashima explored many of these same themes in “Confessions,” Japan’s official 2011 submission for the foreign-language film Oscar, but here he amplifies every element — the spastic style, the baroque plotting, the parental dysfunction and the hidden malice that poisons adolescent life. While there’s something compelling about an antihero whose obsession is poised on the razor’s edge between love and hate, “The World of Kanako” buries it in grinding, agitated repetition. Devotees of Asian extreme cinema may find the redeeming in the irredeemable, but the world outside this band of cultists will be difficult for Drafthouse Films to penetrate.
Nakashima shrewdly upends expectations, however, in casting the typically quiet, genial Koji Yakusho as a booze-soaked and blood-caked antihero hellbent on finding the truth at any cost. Western audiences may be familiar with Yakusho as the Everyman face of “Shall We Dance?,” “Babel,” and the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, but they won’t be as quick to recognize him here as a profane, abusive lout who consistently deflects sympathy rather than courting it. Nakashima and Yakusho’s refusal to buff out the character’s coarse edges is admirably uncompromising, even as they struggle to give him dimension.
Cut to the flaps of a hummingbird’s wings, “The World of Kanako” doubles back to at least four different timelines, but the gist of it is reasonably straightforward. Yakusho stars as Akikazu Fujishima, a disgraced ex-detective who loses a second job as a lowly convenience-store security guard following a triple murder. His situation gets markedly worse when his ex-wife, Kiriko (Asuka Kurosawa), reports that their teenage daughter, Kanako (Nana Komatsu), has been missing for the better part of a week. Largely an absentee father, Akikazu gets to know his daughter through the investigation, which reveals enough wrongdoing to get her grounded for several lifetimes.
Adapting Akio Fukamachi’s novel “Hateshinaki Kawaki,” Nakashima gives himself the latitude to reach beyond Akikazu’s perspective in learning new things about Kanako — a curious choice for a film that’s much more about father than daughter. The film flashes back to three years earlier, when Kanako’s relationship with a bullied teen showed a diabolical talent for seducing and manipulating the weak. It flashes back to the incident on Christmas Eve that cost Akikazu his detective job and his marriage simultaneously. And as Akikazu questions the kids in Kanako’s inner circle, like the vulnerable Nami (Fumi Nikaido) or drug-pushing yakuza wannabe Morishita (Ai Hashimoto), it flashes back to relationships where his daughter wasn’t always playing the victim.
Though the splashy credits for “The World of Kanako” recall the devil-may-care genre mash-ups of Seijun Suzuki (“Branded to Kill”), Nakashima strikes a considerably less playful tone, despite his exuberant displays of ultra-violence and mayhem. The film has more in common with Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore” — by way of “The Searchers” — but in the absence of a moral center, it’s less about a father discovering a lurid underworld than about him exposing the internal rot his daughter has inherited like a birthright. It’s the stuff of Grand Guignol tragedy, but “The World of Kanako” doesn’t pause long enough from visceral ugliness to allow any deeper emotions to sink in.
From the very first utterances in the film — “I love you” and “I’ll kill you” — “The World of Kanako” expresses the duality of love and hate that Akikazu possesses for his daughter, but it doesn’t shift tones as readily as it migrates timelines. Though Yakusho delivers a fine and unexpectedly physical performance, following his character through one abusive encounter after another becomes a grueling ordeal, especially when it’s fattened to two full hours. As the search for Kanako turns his gaze ever-inward, the audience winds up understanding him a lot faster than he understands himself.