Tetsuya Nakashima belongs to a new generation of Japanese filmmakers, which includes talents like Sion Sono and Yoshiro Nakamura, who tell unique, vibrant stories in equally original and engaging ways. Despite creating beautiful films, such as the epic three-and-a-half hour musical Memories of Matsuko and the horror-thriller Confessions (which was short-listed for an Academy Award), very few of Nakashima’s films have made their way stateside. Luckily, his latest — a brutal and bloody yet brilliant film called The World of Kanako — has been picked up by Drafthouse Films, so Americans at large can experience this wildly original director for themselves.
The World of Konako follows ex-detective Akihiro Fujishima (played with wild abandon by Kôji Yakusho), who searches for his missing daughter. This takes him down a swirling, dark rabbit hole of under-age prostitution, rave culture, drug dealing, and even the Yakuza — plunged into a sea of blood and death. It’s not a film that pulls its punches, and any character that survives the piece with his or her life intact finds themselves covered in blood.
The film is very smart, in that we spend little time with Kanako herself. Instead, we are shown the effect she has on those around her. From her father (who we follow through most of the film) to a young boy (whose love for her leads him down a dark and horrific path) to the doctors, teachers, and friends — all of whom are unalterably affected by Kanako’s actions. It’s a clever conceit and helps the central mystery unfold in a more intriguing manner, as we’re doled out information in small bursts from various affected groups.
Truly a beast, Yakusho spends his time roaring through the piece with fury and fire, plowing over (sometimes literally) everything in his path. From his first moments on screen, we find Yakusho brutish and violent, and that changes very little throughout. Not a subtle talent, the director uses him brilliantly, as Akihiro bashes against the innocents (or supposed innocents) so abrasively that it may knock one out of their seat. His raw energy works just as successfully against the toughs of the film, as if they were enough to subdue such an unbound monster.
Akihiro is matched almost perfectly in his rawness with the purity of Nana Kamatsu’s Kanako. In a movie where it’s hard to find a character not drenched in blood or bruised beyond belief, we find Kanako largely unblemished. She’s a perfect ethereal being, and with her innocent eyes and shy smile, Kamatsu takes this on perfectly. It’s easy to see why everyone in the film would be drawn to her, and the director always shows her as untouchable, drenched in light, pristine.
Nakashima has become known for his unique filmmaking style, and The World of Kanako is no different. Frenetically edited, and with sudden spots of animation, the film showcases over-saturation of color to make the director’s scenes feel all-the-more intense, while freewheeling through timelines left and right. Nakashima also loves playing around with point of view, this time jumping between two or three characters (in completely different time periods) to give us a more thorough picture of the action. He will sometimes make a shift between these points of view without warning, creating a jarring, uncomfortable moment for the viewer, which is wildly effective in keeping the audience always slightly off kilter.
For all its frenetic editing, energetic performances and twisty narrative structure, there is sadly an elephant in the room, and that’s the film’s treatment (or mistreatment) of women. There is not a woman in the movie that doesn’t get beaten, mutilated, shot or raped — in some cases, all at the same time. It’s one thing to see the villains of the piece taking part in these actions, but to see our protagonist partaking in these horrific acts is another entirely. Though we’re never quite meant to sympathize with Akihiro, it’s difficult to enjoy any of his admittedly well-earned victories throughout, knowing he’s been raping and beating several women in his wake. The level of violence is high between all the sexes here, and male characters get their share of beatings from women, but the level of violence perpetrated upon women in this film may be a deal breaker for many. It’s all the more a pity, as the director’s former films have been rather female-centric, portraying them many times in a positive light.
The World of Kanako is a violent, brutal and frenetic film, but one that uses these aspects somewhat intelligently in order to present an engaging (and legitimately surprising) mystery tale. The level of brutality may be off-putting to some, especially as it pertains to its women, but those looking to overlook these shortcomings will come out of the film in awe.
Ryan E. Johnson (@atxtheaterguy) is a theatre and film critic from Austin, TX. He enjoys the films of Sion Sono, Wong Kar-Wai, Ingmar Bergman and loves experiencing films told from bold, new perspectives.