Renown for the celebrated “Tetsuo” films, Japanese auteur and cult favorite filmmaker Shin’ya Tsukamoto offers another bleak and harrowing tale with his effort ‘Kotoko.’ Reteaming with singer/songwriter/actress Cocco nearly a decade after their previous collaboration in ‘Vital,’ this new effort arrives as one of the director’s best films ever and offers plenty of engaging elements at its core.

The film screened at Five Flavours Asian Horror Night

Tormented by frightening visions, single mother Kotoko (Cocco, from the soundtrack to Tsukamoto’s earlier film “Vital”) struggles to take care of herself and her newborn child, as she often sees hostile doubles of the people she meets. After her mental state deteriorates further to the point of frequently cutting herself with razors as a means of confirming that her body is still alive and hers, her baby is taken away and given to her sister (Yûko Nakamura, from “Strawberry Shortcakes”) to take care of it in the peaceful country home where she lives with her family. Although she tries to bring her life back to normalcy, again her emotions start to spiral out of control and madness beckons once she finally comes to grips with her fragile emotional state.

This was a fantastic effort with a lot to enjoy about it. One of the finest aspects of the film is the strength of the central character. Being given such a strong personality in Kotoko, who has so much going on that she’s worthy of being this kind of central figure, the film gets quite a lot of mileage out of her. The torment she feels trying to raise her child alone in the city causes such stress and frustration that she frequently daydreams about killing it to start her life over. The peace and tranquility she feels being around her sister, out in the countryside, is such a welcome relief contrasting with the cold city scenes. To top it off, she also struggles with an ability to separate fantasy from reality, where she constantly imagines evil doppelgangers of those around her who often viciously attack her. That forces her into a self-destructive pattern of self-mutilation and creates an overall frantic central premise here.

Still, this one doesn’t forget it’s a horror film at its heart so there are plenty of fantastic scares here. These revolve around the doppelganger attacks which are striking and utterly haunting. With frantic editing, chaotic sounds blaring along through the sequence and a dark intent behind them rushing towards her, these scenes leave a strong impression. There’s a brutality on display here with the way these occur, which gives this a striking tone and feel that goes hand-in-hand with the madness she displays. This is furthered by the scenes of her cutting herself or the way she beats up those that try to get between her and her child. Altogether, the film offers a lot to get invested in for those who prefer to dig into this kind of effort.

Essentially a one-woman show, Cocco is absolutely marvelous as the titular figure. A large part of the film rests on her and she comes through in spectacular fashion with a winning performance. The haggard look and sleep-deprived face effectively conveys her inner turmoil, as she’s being driven to and past the brink of insanity which captures her battle with reality extremely effectively. Still, the scenes of her with her daughter in her apartment or out in the city showcase a warmth and determination to be an effective mother figure. The failure of one bleeds over into the other and gives us a tremendous amount of sympathy for her which, is only possible through her sensitive and restrained performance. The deeper she falls here, the more unhinged she becomes, which really sells the plight of this one so well. The other performances are nowhere near as powerful or poignant, yet also don’t stand-out either, so there’s no one who stands out nor turns in a bad exhibition. This revolves around her as it should and everyone else lets her do so.

Although there’s plenty to like, the film does have a few minor issues on display. The vast majority of the film is a character study so those expecting traditional jump-scares or slashings will be disappointed. This takes it’s time to tell this story, so, although the horror scenes do occur, and are absolutely stellar during them, frankly the film doesn’t have that much else going on. It still moves along well, but it’s mostly brief spurts of action followed by other scenes that focus on her madness and lost sanity so the action doesn’t get featured here at all. This can leave the film feeling dull for long stretches of time to some which really is the main problem. Some might find an issue in the final half where it seems to end on too many different false endings to really matter and loses it’s steam somewhat because of that, but overall the film is still way too enjoyable to matter much on this front. In the end, this is a stellar effort that has so much more to enjoy that it rises above those minor problems.