The World of Kanako is one of the few films in recent memory that can only be described as indescribable. This hyper-violent mystery from Japan’s Tetsuya Nakashima seems to tread vaguely similar ground to his 2010 hit, Confessions.
At the film’s heart are questions of the strength of link between parent and child, but if their hearts are vaguely similar, their execution is anything but. Where Confessions plays out like a chilling arthouse horror, Kanako seems to be a typical detective-searches-for-child film at first, before devolving into an insane mix of exploitation, high school drama, gang film, and procedural.
Describing Kanako is most fruitful when you throw away genre and plot and talk about similar films. Imagine a film blender. You’ve got Lynchian atmosphere and music, Tarantino’s propensity for intellectualizing classic exploitation, the breakneck editing of Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, and a few dashes of the styles of Takashi Miike and Chan-wook Park. Yet, the film you’re imagining right now is probably wildly different than The World of Kanako.
A mentally unstable alcoholic and former cop, Akikazu Fujishima (Kôji Yakusho), is thrown back into a the role of detective when a brutal murder brings him into collision with former coworkers. In the midst of this, Fujishima is contacted by his ex-wife, distraught about the disappearance of their daughter, Kanako (Nana Komatsu). As Fujishima searches for the truth of Kanako’s disappearance, the narrative twists and turns endlessly, revealing connections and intricate stories beneath the surface of the main narrative.
Whether or not one will enjoy The World of Kanako depends most importantly on their level of tolerance for and ability to enjoy extreme violence and nihilism in a story. Still, even if one doesn’t enjoy the film, its construction deserves praise. Nakashima has an arthouse sensibility in the way he experiments with editing, and his postmodernist approach blends genres, narrators, and disjointed stories into a story that ends up feeling very cohesive. Not only that, this approach has the dual function of reflecting its characters.
A scene in a drug-fueled party attended by Kanako plays with youth culture through a liberal use of emojis in the frame, showing that Nakashima is very deliberate in his staging and style, while at the same time unafraid to take risks in order to convey characters in unusual ways. We get a sense of Kanako not only through what other characters say about her, but also through the way she is shot. Nakashima sees visuals as not just an opportunity to reveal emotion, but to reveal character, as well.
The cinematography is often hard to analyze because it’s hidden beneath a constant bombardment of images, but the images themselves are not just there to add speed and rhythm to the editing. Like almost everything else about Kanako, it’s frantic and chaotic while being inwardly deliberate. Bright artificial colors and realistic photography alternate through the movie, delineating contrasting emotions and characters through cinematography that echoes different genres. When all is said and done, the film feels complete, which, given it’s stylistic mishmash, is no simple feat.
Unfortunately, where Kanako falters is perhaps in its’ convoluted plot. It’s surprisingly not too difficult to follow, but has a definite tendency towards the tangential and lingering scene. It doesn’t detract excessively from the impact of the film. But at two hours, the film has trouble sustaining its’ breakneck pace near the end.
Thankfully, there’s not much else that didn’t work in the film. The acting, especially from Yakusho, manages to be wild, emotional and somehow grounded. There’s a real vulnerability and sadness to Yakusho’s performance, and despite the tone of the film, none of the acting ever feels broad in any way. Rather, it’s realistic, if a bit intense. Kanako herself plays a sociopathic teen in a way that’s a bit over-the-top, but for most of the film, the acting helps to ground us amongst the intensity of everything else.
The World of Kanako has every chance to go off the rails, but it doesn’t. It’s solid and it’s experimental and dark as hell. Despite a wealth of ’70s exploitation influences that are made extremely apparent in the film’s campy opening and fight scenes, you never get the sense that you’re watching an exploitation film. It’s much more apt to approach Kanako as an arthouse film, because hidden beneath a veneer of soulless violence is a film that challenges viewers with unique storytelling and a visual playfulness.
This is a film for which much can be written about, and comes from a director who wants to show people an eclecticism that one wouldn’t have imagined watching Confessions. Kanako isn’t going to appeal to everyone — in fact, the sheer violence of it may put off a lot of people — but going into it with an open mind is a dizzying and worthwhile experience, with an emphasis on dizzying.