Legendary Japanese provocateur Shin'ya Tsukamoto's appearance at the East End Film Festival is certainly something of a coup for the organisers and with his latest film he does not disappoint. Kotoko tests the endurance (and the stomach) of the audience and is one of the most frightening non-horror films you are ever likely to see. Indeed, it is exactly the kind of film we've come to expect from Tsukamoto and yet, at the same time, also something of a departure for him. As always it's distinctive, blisteringly loud and uncomfortable but it is also, for once, quite a tender film he has made.
Kotoko is a young woman who cannot cope, this is clear from the onset. She has a unique problem with double vision, which is also a side effect of her madness. So, for every time she sees a person smile at her she then sees the same person brutally attack her. It's a very disorientating technique used by Tsukamoto and one that allows us to sample the destruction of Kotoko's paranoia up close. It becomes impossible to separate the real from the imaginary and even when we convinced that the horrors we've seen are real, moments later everything is back to normal. This is never truer than when she strangles her young son to death in one particularly disconcerting scene only for him to appear minutes later. Relief floods through the cinema, such is the palpable intensity of the film.
The people around Kotoko, her son, family members, lovers, strangers, are ultimately of little importance in the grand scheme of her life and there are moments when you question whether they exist at all such is the dizzyingly paranoid descent our heroine descends into. However, what marks Kotoko out as probably the film of this festival is the way that is able to constantly shock through repetition. A romantic dinner ends with Kotoko putting a fork through her companion's hand. The next time we see a similar scenario there is an almost identical ending. The fact that you know what is coming and are still suspended in disbelief is quite something.
There are moments of very black comedy on show here. Her hapless partner seemingly enters every scene with a new injury or wearing more bruises and you can't help but laugh. Kotoko's intent on slashing her wrists, though, never gets easier to watch and neither do the sustained beatings she lavishes on her doting partner (played wonderfully by Tsukamoto himself). It is during these instances that we glimpse Kotoko's real and only target- herself. The abuse she administers is simply a way of forcing people away from her or, as with her son, a way of saving them.
The film's biggest achievement is that unlike its lead character, it never spirals out of control. There is a hopefulness about Kotoko we witness when she looses herself in song or plays games with her son. The final moments convey this beautifully as she dances in thunderous rain before, finally being allowed a visitor, she briefly gets what she wants. Kotoko, then, is surely the crowning success of this festival and a film that you will recommend to friends provided you can peel your hands from you eyes.