Overview: A former detective’s search for his missing daughter grows increasingly depraved and horrific as he discovers the secrets about her and himself that led to her disappearance. Drafthouse Films; 2014; Not Rated; 118 minutes.
“Do you have dreams?”: Tetsuya Nakashima’s adaptation of Akio Fukamachi’s novel is oppressively dream-like, a sweat-stained and blood-soaked tableau of sin and emptiness. Every scene seems to perspire off the frustrated and drunken steam of Akihiro’s search for his daughter Kanako, the camera lens becoming hazy, but never unfocused, as it follows this journey. The sheer heat of narrative momentum in this detective thriller is unbalanced by flashbacks that become harder and harder to separate from the current events, and as live-action sinks into the animated expressions of depression and drug-induced trips, it becomes increasingly difficult to pin down reality, even more so given that there is not a single character in the film who we can trust. In many ways, The World of Kanako can be viewed as a man’s journey into hell, a hell created by his daughter and himself, and one unlike any vision of the underworld that we’ve seen before. Many of the familiar elements of crime stories are present from corrupt cops, pedophiles in positions of power, yakuza gangs, drugs, and grisly torture, but there’s a smirking acknowledgement that there’s no moral center to be found in any of this, no act of heroism or goodness to pull the audience out. As Kanako says, “There are no rules in a dream,” and this film is all about breaking rules both from a character and filmmaking standpoint. Nakashima seems to revel in this spiraling hell he throws the characters into, and as audience members we’re witness to what may be one of the most visually brilliant examples of Japan’s extreme cinema, but also one of the most alienating.
The Big Empty: We’ve become used to watching bad men on screens, used to championing them, and feeling sympathy for them. From the beginning, it’s clear that Akihiro (Kōji Yakusho), drunken and haggard looking, is our bad man, and one we can seemingly root for, a cinematic descendent of the violent protagonists who led Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy. But as the film goes on, we see that Akihiro’s behavior isn’t simply self-destructive, but a result of calculated cruelty. This isn’t an ordinary man turned bad by circumstance, but an inhumanely evil force created by choice. As he beats, insults, threatens, and rapes his way to answers about his daughter, we’re pushed further and further away from him until we can barely stand to follow him down his path. The new information he receives changes his knowledge, but not his character, and without that ability to change he ceases to become human in our eyes. Even when Akihiro isn’t the focus, the film still goes out of its way to make everyone as unapproachable as possible.
The film’s flashbacks, for the most part, center on a high-school boy with a crush on Kanako. But his infatuation with the girl isn’t treated as charming or romantic, but pathetic, and another means for the film to explore an individual’s power to destroy. Kanako (Nana Komatsu) herself is opaque. We hear from third parties that she is “evil,” we see brief moments of her manipulation relating to her high-school life, and the evil she orchestrates through others, but we see too little of Kanako for her to be the terrifying force she needs to be at the center of this mystery, the force to somehow propel the rest of these bad men to some eroding high-ground.
There’s something to be admired about Nakashima’s purposeful destruction of any possible emotional tethers to these characters, and his ability to offer little to any expositional insight into Akihiro and Kanako’s similar predilection for evil other than their need to destroy what they love. But this leaves the film with an emptiness that makes our ability to care about the film’s twists and reveals wain with each severed connection. Any attempt to connect emotionally with these characters is asking to either burn in their sins or drown in the sorrows they create around them.
No Pleasure in Pain: While the setup is more interesting than the film’s final reveal, it’s impossible to deny how compelling the film’s premise is. The film’s use of repetition in its scenarios, imagery, and music cues gives the film a quality of beat poetry, but ultimately this does very little to push that premise forward; it begins to test our patience because there’s only so many heinous acts we can witness before we’re no longer surprised by or dreading anything. While the film’s ambitions overshoot its narrative template, The World of Kanako is an intriguing experiment in how far an audience can be pushed away from the characters and remain invested in the larger narrative and filmmaking techniques.
Overall: The film goes a step too far, but like any worthwhile experiment, there’s a sense of innovation in its rule-breaking that’s fascinating to experience, difficult to call a success upon first viewing, and impossible not to keep thinking about.