Kotoko (2011)

Kotoko is a woman suffering from a peculiar condition that makes her see two versions of people and is often attacked or threatened by the mysterious doppelgangers that appear. The only way she is able to stop these visions is by singing. She also self-harms, not to kill herself, as she explains, but to test if she is still allowed to live. Kotoko lives alone with her infant son, Daigoro, who is the only thing she cares for in the world, wearing a ring only to keep men away from her. Following a series of anxiety attacks and breakdowns, Kotoko’s son is taken from her to live with her sister in Okinawa. A man who catches sight of Kotoko singing on the bus decides to try and help her. He turns out to be a famous novelist Tanaka, and soon he is dragged into her inexplicable and destructive world.

Shinya Tsukamoto uses his creative directorial style to bring us inside the mind of a woman who is unhinged. From the opening scenes of duplicate people, the use of hand-held camera, off-kilter angles and constant movement gives an authentic sense of a disordered mind that few films covering mental illness manage to achieve. Tsukamoto is one of the few directors who makes the camera an integral part of his filmmaking. His belief in the power of the moving image itself to tell a story is also on display. The film opens with a girl dancing on a beach, the tumult of the waves behind, before being broken by a piercing scream. This is only one example of the vague, artistic way that much of the story is presented and lends itself to numerous interpretations of meaning. The film is straightforward in a narrative sense and largely does away with any semblance of plot or structure. Various things happen to Kotoko, but the heart of the film is an experiential collage of her instability. Her family, the author Tanaka, and Daigoro, are static points with which to contrast Kotoko’s own behaviour. The central performance by Cocco is mesmerising as she lets herself become fully immersed in the role. She is sympathetic if not relatable and as the film progresses we see a number of sides to her. Shinya Tsukamoto plays Tanaka as a somewhat naïve martyr to Kotoko’s darker impulses. His kindness in allowing Kotoko to vent her rage on him make for some of the most powerful scenes of the film.

The film hints at a childhood trauma that led Kotoko to her current mental state. The lack of an explicit cause helps the audience relate to Kotoko as we feel the same sense of alienation from that inciting incident. It is clear that she does not understand why she should be suffering this condition, and that unease and anxiety is presented to the viewer as fragmented memories and subtle references. Likewise, her seeing double can be seen as a metaphor for a psyche that has been split asunder by some unspeakable suffering. The film is not an easy watch, its difficult subject matter and experimental style may be off-putting for some. Without a conventional plot structure it can also feel stretched as it is never quite clear where everything is leading. However, fans of Shinya Tsukamoto’s other films will enjoy this as it is the director at his most creative with an incredible performance from the lead actress. The downbeat finale of the film gives an uneasy resolution to the story and almost prompts you to go back to look for clues in the drama to what happened, challenging you as the viewer to engage with the subject matter.

Antiporno (2016)

When our heroine Kyoko wakes up in a mysterious room, painted bright yellow with an adjoining red bathroom, it is not immediately apparent whether this is reality or a dream. This sense of unease continues throughout a plot that moves rapidly from sequence to sequence following its own ‘dream-logic’ that intertwines flashbacks, hallucinations, fourth-wall breaking, and heartfelt soliloquising from Kyoko. The film revolves around Kyoko (Ami Tomite), an author who paints out her characters on large canvasses before writing her novels. Kyoko spends the majority of the film in this unreal space, met by her assistant, journalist, camera woman, and the film is as much about what is going on in her head as in the real world. The plot is hard to explain without giving away the more enjoyable twists and turns of this psychological drama.

Writer and director Sion Sono creates an unsettling yet compelling world that is constantly surprising the audience. The stylish sets help create an intriguing theatre-like space along with the classical score giving the whole film the feeling of a performance. Antiporno is a reflection on soft-core pornography, and it takes its subject seriously, unpacking various issues associated with pornography in society. The characters are intended more as archetypes than with any real backstory. Ami Tomite gives a stunning performance as Kyoko, whose shifting character evokes sympathy and revulsion in equal measure. She is the only character who is given a backstory, that further adds to the impression that this whole film is taking place at least in part inside her head. Everything is beautifully shot and frames with Sono showing a mastery of his craft.

Circling the central subject of sex and pornography, the film presents a plethora of ideas. You can almost imagine that this is the result of a brainstorming exercise, and the film itself jumps from one idea to another. Some of the issues raised are the pressures put on women to fulfil two competing roles for men, that of the whore and the virgin, and how this relates to a woman’s idea of herself and her worth to society. We see the intersection of sex and violence, the emptiness at the heart of consuming pornography. Despite some difficult themes the film never feels like a morality tale. The film emphasizes the naturalness of sex and rails against the shame so often associated with it. It understands that intelligent debate on the subject, rather than moral panic, is the best way to tackle issues. I would highly recommend this film as an intelligent psycho-drama about sex, with a stunning central performance, excellent direction, and a story that forces you to consider any preconceptions you might have about sex, pornography and society.

Perfect Blue (1997)

Pop idol Mima has made the decision to leave popular trio CHAM in order to begin a career as an actress. The film follows Mima’s trials as she tries to find herself through her new profession, understand who she is and what she is doing, as well as navigating the often sordid world of fame. Her miseries seem to pile up as she attracts a stalker, who sets up a website detailing her every move, and her former band-mates become successful following her departure. Mima is also troubled by an identity crisis, as she struggles to distinguish between her life and the characters she portrays on screen, as well as between dreams and reality.

Satoshi Kon’s first feature film is a psychological thriller that breaks with convention to offer us a real look inside the mind of someone who is losing theirs. From the opening scenes, in which we see Mima performing and shopping intercut, we are presented with the idea of duality, emphasized by various shots of reflections in glass, mirrors and polished floors. The direction utilises cuts and fades to blur the lines between Mima’s acting and her reality, drawing you into her world and making later revelations in the film as confusing for the audience as they are for the character. The script was based on a novel, though many elements were changed. The story interweaves so many elements that it becomes overwhelming, again helping create an empathy with the character as you are experiencing the same whirlwind of complexity and confusion that Mima is feeling in her new career. The music, by Masahiro Ikumi, creates a sense of dread with the soundtrack occasionally imitating the sound of heavy breathing, or disjointed noises with a background buzz that might as easily be insects or television static.

The film does an incredible job of covering many themes, the central one being that of change. Mima is essentially attempting to become a new person, leaving behind her pure, virginal image as a young pop idol to become a strong confident woman. It is about the struggle of understanding yourself as much as the pressures that are applied on you to conform to a certain standard, or to people’s expectations of you. It also offers a dark commentary on the music and entertainment industry as you see how they treat people. The end of the film is ambiguous, and like many other scenes almost demands that you think about what has preceded it and try to make some sense out of this peculiar world, and the character of Mima. There is so much in this film that it deserves several repeat viewings.

Based on the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi

Vital (2004)

Tadanobu Asano stars in this tense thriller about love, loss and dissection. After waking up from a car crash suffering severe amnesia Hiroshi Takagi (Asano) restarts his medical training, something which he had given up on. He takes to the subject with a great degree of dedication and skill. When the class begin on dissecting corpses, he is surprised to see that the body they are working on is that of his former girlfriend, killed in the same car crash that resulted in his memory loss. As Hiroshi dissects the body, he has recurring dreams in which he sees the woman, Ryoko, spending time with her in that otherworld beyond life.

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), this film is more accessible than his earlier work. Despite its seemingly macabre and gruesome plot, it is a surprisingly charming film, largely concerned with themes of grief and human relationships, albeit told in an unconventional fashion. The direction uses a number of tricks to disorient the viewer, jumping from real-world and dream-sequences to create a sense of unreality to everything you are seeing, and including seemingly unrelated scenes of factory chimneys that cause you to ponder their significance. One of the most effective shots in the film, for me, was the image of elevator doors sliding up and down beside each other, a simple but chilling effect that puts you in mind of left-right brain dichotomy, and is subtly troubling. Tadanobu Asano does a good job at portraying the lead, who is not only suffering memory loss, a sense of isolation and alienation from the world following his girlfriend’s death, but is also a studious person who is keen to analyse his own psyche as he examines the corpse on the table before him. If there was problem for me with the film it was in some of the more experimental shots, such as a car crash filmed in negative or the aforementioned inserts of smoking chimneys, but these can be forgiven when experiencing a singular vision such as this. The film is far from generic, so some eccentricity is to be expected in the direction.

A fantastic analysis of the relationship between the conscious and subconscious worlds, and how people are able to deal with grief and loss. I would definitely recommend this film to fans of more bizarre stories. There are a few scenes of autopsy that might not be for the faint-hearted, but overall the film does not rely on shock horror allowing you to get involved in what is essentially a tragic love story.

Into a Dream (2005)

The film follows Suzuki, an actor who is struggling to find some purpose in his life, after he discovers he has contracted an STI. He is unsure who it is from, leading to a further deterioration in his relationship with his girlfriend. Suzuki sets off back to his hometown for a family reunion. Along the way, he is troubled by strange dreams, one in which he is part of a terrorist cell, another in which he is being interrogated, which start to become a part of his waking life. The lines between dreams and reality become blurred, as we hear repeated snatches of dialogue, the same actors recurring across all the dreams in different roles, and an increasingly confused Suzuki starting to lose his mind.

Written and directed by Sion Sono, this film features a lot of what makes the directors work interesting. There is a lot of comedy in the film, despite an apparently serious subject (that of sexually transmitted disease, alienation and depression). It is a straightforward story, that of an actor trying to find himself, told in an unconventional way. It is interesting to see the various dreams begin to intrude into his life, and ponder the significance of phrases that are repeated (such as the repeated reference to “venusians”). A great example of this peculiar storytelling is when Suzuki ends up in a basement with a maintenance man discussing a leaking pipe, a metaphor for Suzuki’s current ailment and need to be “fixed” or cured. The camerawork is all handheld, with many long takes adding to the dream-logic feel and making for an immersive experience. All the actors do a great job with multiple roles and the realistic, perhaps improvised, dialogue.

The central idea, an actor attempting to discover his true self, is not particularly original, but this film approaches it in a novel way, and lets us inside his head (including his dreams) to get a better sense of what he is experiencing. It is an examination of his interactions with others, with the contraction of an STI hammering this point home in a darkly comic way. We see his family, friends, lovers, both in real life, and his projections of them in his dreams. I would recommend this for fans of Sono, or films with a psychological element to them.