THE WORLD OF KANAKO Review: Mad World
With a recent history of films that includes entries like the Vengeance trilogy, The Chaser, I Saw the Devil, and others, South Korea has been at the forefront of stark thrillers that aren’t afraid to challenge viewers with violent acts, desperate themes, tragic characters, and bleak endings. But it hasn’t cornered the market. New from Japan, a filmmaking nation I mostly associate with anime, Kurosawa, and J-horror, comes The World of Kanako, a film that can give anything from SoKo a run for its money.
Akikazu Fujishima (Kôji Yakusho) is broken. A devastating combination of poor anger management and exceptional substance abuse has left him a three-time loser. The cop is now a disgraced former cop; the husband is now an ex-husband; and the father is distantly estranged from his teenage daughter, Kanako (Nana Komatsu), who has gone missing. While he was never Father Of The Year material to begin with, he still feels a sense of obligation to find his girl.
Using police skills held together mostly by muscle memory, Akikazu investigates Kanako’s disappearance on his own. During his investigation, he crosses paths with everyone from his ex-wife to Kanako’s psychiatrist, and from her schoolgirl classmates to members of the Yakuza. But as Akikazu digs harder to find his daughter, he also digs deeper into her past. Whether he finds her or not, what he discovers about the person she became while he was out of her life might haunt him forever.
With The World of Kanako, writer/director Tetsuya Nakashima presents a staggering film about obsession, desperation, manipulation, self-destruction, powerlessness, and addiction. This core, already supersaturated with despair, is then drenched in the blood of teeming violence and punctuated by unsettling acts of rape, pedophilia, and incest. And it all works to exhausting effect because it does more than grab you by the lapels and intimidate you into watching it; it grabs you by the hair and forces you to examine it.
At the heart of the story is Akikazu. He is a man devoid of any redeeming qualities, making him neither hero nor anti-hero, and the recidivist behavior that drove him to utter despair in the first place – not just the substance abuse, but an all-consuming anger – perpetuates itself to the point that as the story progresses, his quest for his daughter seems less like the act of a desperate father and more like the drive of a man who measures redemption not by actions, but by results. Akikazu, his anger supercharged by vice and regret, lunges forward with equal parts determination and spite, damning by sheer will the unthinkable amount of abuse he has given and taken. There is no one who is safe from Akikazu – not even himself – and he does nothing to garner sympathy from the viewer; in fact, I’d say he distances himself further and further from the audience the closer he gets to his daughter. Yakusho is an absolute beast in the role, taking untamed desperation to intense levels.
Boku (Hiroya Shimizu), who appears in flashback three years prior to present day, is the second key player in this unholy trinity of tragically flawed characters. A young boy who is the constant target for unrelenting physical bullying by classmates for no reason other than he is weaker than the rest, Boku finds an emotional oasis in Kanako, first pining for her from afar and eventually becoming part of her world. Unlike Akikazu, Boku’s addiction doesn’t hinder or help his pursuit of Kanako – his addiction is Kanako. This could be more toxic than any combination of drink and drug, and it leads to decisions just as reckless as those made by Akikazu, but far more subtle.
As for Kanako herself, the object of this twisted bizarre love triangle, to reveal even a little would be to reveal too much, other than to say her character is the perfect complement to, and foil for, both Akikazu and Boku. First-timer Komatsu does a fine job in the role, never giving away too much nor playing it too cute.
Nakashima’s storytelling approach dances along the line between brazen and reckless but never crosses it. The filmmaker deftly presents events that take place in the present day, eight months in the past, and three years in the past, and blends those with bits of Akikazu’s memories that are undated but integral to understanding characters – memories that are revealed more and more as the story progresses. Throw in the occasional fantasy Akikazu has and the viewer is left a little dizzy but in the best possible way and none the worse for wear.
Visually, the film is a hypnotic watch. Cinematographer Shôichi Atô presents Nakashima’s vision using a wide array of lighting levels, tints, and filters to set the right optical mood for each (sometimes recurring) scene. Complementing this is sharp editing from Yoshiyuki Koike. On the audio side, any soundtrack that runs the gamut from blues guitar to J-Pop to Dean Martin, and uses each style to fitting effect, is doing something right.
The World of Kanako is a film that is difficult to watch yet impossible to forget, and if Quentin Tarantino and Chan-wook Park had a lovechild, this would be it. Nakashima’s stylish visuals, fearless gear-changes, terrific soundtrack choices, and deft timeline manipulation are reminiscent of QT’s work. At the same time, the Japanese director’s bleak worldview, dark themes, irredeemable characters, and perpetual pall of hopelessness he hangs over the story and its players is in a league with Park’s best work. Finally, Nakashima employs a Venn Diagram-like overlap of the most notable element of the American and South Korean masters’ works: violence. It’s violence that is as relentless as it is discomforting, and as exhausting as it is shocking, and yet it’s something that cannot be ignored.
(Drafthouse Films will release The World of Kanako in theaters and on VOD Friday, December 4.)