The World of Kanako Dir. Tetsuya Nakashima

[Drafthouse Films; 2014]

Styles: thriller, drama, evil schoolgirl
Others: Battle Royale, Suicide Circle, Flarella

The future was Japanese, and it was a utopia, and it would be a nightmare. We had Sony, and Panasonic — but we also had atom bombs, Godzilla and Akira. Our fridges and calculators made life easier while we were waiting for the next apocalypse. And just like the last one, it came to Japan first, and worst — longer and more boring. After The Lost Decade that lasted for more than a decade, the future packed up and went to China. And Japan, well, it just stopped.

This is where Tetsuya Nakashima’s The World of Kanako takes up the story.

As played by Nana Komatsu, Kanako is a kaiju in kawaii clothing. What terrifies most is that she plays the role without irony or subtext. To all intents and purposes, she is THE Japanese schoolgirl, giggling behind her hands for all eternity, flicking more victory signs than any other of her kind. But she’s also a monster who leads her friends — gleefully — into a twilight world of drug addiction and rape. Only ever seen in flashback, her presence pervades the film, and at no point does Nakashima ever feel the need to psychoanalyse her. What she is, is a readymade myth.

If any explanation is offered for Kanako’s evil, it comes in the figure of her sociopathic father Akihiro. Blackmailed by the police to investigate the murder of three high school kids friendly with Kanako, he goes on a rampage of violence and sex, and violence immediately before, after and during sex, all in the name of a daughter he barely remembers and almost certainly hates — he repeats the word “bitch” a good deal. This detective narrative, though skewed it may be, allows Nakashima to flit back and forth in time as much as he likes, which is a lot. As the film progresses, his hyperlink approach to cinema has the same effect as a late night Wikipedia trawl: too many tabs are open, and it wasn’t a smart idea to open any of them. Particularly flawed is the decision to mirror Akihiro’s storyline with a sub-plot involving an Kanako obsessed otaku. Either would make a fine film on their own. Smooshed together, Nakashima just goes back to the thriller when he gets bored of the high school drama, and vice versa. He doesn’t earn the Jean Cocteau quote that opens the film. Sure, Cocteau liked messing with the folks at home, but only when he had the material to back it. Cutting in some anime or splattering the screen with stylized blood doesn’t make up for a deficit in storytelling.

That’s a frustration, because the story is, fundamentally, worthy as fuck. It all goes back to the Lost Decade. Right now, the consequence of that long economic stagnation for Japan’s youth is that they’re expected to take up a burden not of their making. This has led to alienation at best, and violence at worst. The rate of child and teen suicide in Japan is right up there, and it hasn’t escaped notice that one too many teenage guys are either terminally afraid of chatting up the opposite sex, or — alternately — killing them. With this in mind, it doesn’t seem such a leap to have a cute little girl pimping her pals out to policemen and CEOs — although it’s no less disturbing when depicted, fleetingly, onscreen. In those, the film’s most extreme moments, Nakashima locates a broader sense that the country is folding in on itself. The repeated rapes and beatings, the incest and pederasty — these are fictional expressions of a real-world malaise, seemingly without answer. The final scenes, of Akihiro raking through a field of snow in search of his daughter, might as well be a whole country desperately searching for that future it used to set store by.

At its best, The World of Kanako is a nihilistic spectacle, where the prospect of a resolution to Kanako’s terrible youthfulness could only come if the very foundations of society were burned to ash and built over. Nakashima has created a character as relevant to her moment as the other great monsters of Japanese cinema were to theirs. Almost for the grim spectacle of watching a nation crumple into obsolescence — at least by fictional proxy — it’s worth enduring his excess of technique. And if his gimmicks aren’t worthy of the big name he invokes, then that only adds to the sense- the tragic sense- that Japan, and everything in it, are ploughing into an ever deeper trough.

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