The 58th BFI London Film Festival: The World of Kanako Review

“Why is everyone so obsessed with Kanako?” One character asks under duress to Kanako’s latest victim, Boku, who is desperately seeking the truth about her. Where she is? Why she is? How she is? What is she? Kanako. Kanako. Ka-na-ko.

Perhaps it’s fitting then, that The World of Kanako is all about its eponymous character but also never about her. Instead it’s the world she creates through her actions that is everything to and in this film – light from a collapsed star, ever drawing people further and further down. Everyone’s Alice in this never-ending rabbit hole, and director Tetsuya Nakashima’s invited the audience along for the ride.

The World of Kanako opens to find its titular character missing, and her alcoholic, drug-addicted father, ex-detective Showa Fujishima (Koji Yakusho), is determined to find her by any means necessary. Fujishima’s investigation develops on screen alongside scenes from Kanako’s school-life over the past year, and is presented from the point of view of Boku (Hiroya Shimizu). As Fujishima is led deeper into the dark underworld of Japan’s Yakuza, so too is Boku, as his naïve fascination for Kanako makes him blind to the sordid plans she has in store for him. As the film progresses, it reveals Kanako’s true nature to both the characters and the audience, exposing the monster behind the innocent smile.

Kanako’s basic premise of a father’s search for his missing daughter sounds simple in a way that belies the intensity and nightmarish quality of the film. With imagery and a vividness reminiscent of Tarantino, as a result of its cartoon-style violence and extreme gore, the film’s 118 minutes hurtle along with such incredible speed that the audience barely has time to blink, let alone contemplate the plethora of questions and questionable ethics displayed in each scene. Compounded by a disjointed, non-linear, multi-perspectival narrative, the film is a heady experience, especially in the few scenes where it departs from the grimness and gore to shift into beautiful animation or acid-fuelled party-scapes.

The above aside, The World of Kanako is not a film for the faint-hearted. The film’s initial release in Japan had several audience members leaving the theatre in disgust, and it is obvious from the get go why this is the case. Graphic murder and torture scenes are merely frosting compared to the violent outbursts, physical and sexual, that make up most of Fujishima’s actions and behaviour, and therefore almost the entirety of the film. The film is an uneasy experience for its audience, and there are more than one or two moments where viewers would feel uncomfortable and slightly ill. Despite this, however, The World of Kanako did prove to be an intriguing and immersive experience.

Nakashima’s use of short, sharp editing and glimpses of different aspects of Japanese life and culture, such as the use of animation when Boku felt his psyche slipping, were paramount in keeping the audience engaged, but more importantly, in maintaining their suspension of disbelief. This, of course, was vital simply because the level of gore and violence became gratuitous to the point that every character’s continued survival, especially during the final stand-off, seemed implausible, if not downright impossible. A cat may have nine lives but Fujishima’s ability to survive every punch, kick, bullet, and crash is ridiculous.

It is to Kōji Yakusho’s credit that Fujishima never felt caricatured, and that his performance was reigned in enough to lend credibility to such an over the top role. Yakusho’s intense performance aptly illustrated the brutality of his character, and he acted with remarkable versatility to exemplify Fujishima’s repulsiveness. That said, the film’s intensity would have faltered without Nana Komatsu, whose impressive debut performance as the monstrous Kanako provides viewers with subtle glimpses at the evil behind the mask, keeping them guessing her actions at every turn. Hiroya Shimizu’s take on Boku was also intriguing, as his character’s slow descent into madness was demonstrated well by Shimizu’s performance. All in all, the plot tied together well, with every element adding to the atmosphere and narrative while also working so well individually that the sound alone, for example, was enough to put the audience on edge.

The World of Kanako was an unexpectedly intense thrill ride that is very likely to achieve cult status (if it hasn’t already) – exulting, as it does, in its nastiness and the director’s dream of subverting the “rogue cop” genre.  It should be noted, though, that beyond the extreme audio and vivid visuals, the film does leave its audience with much to ponder – even if only what their kids are getting up to tonight.

Written by Roxy Simons.

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