The following contains significant plot spoilers for the movie.
The link between rain and catharsis is a staple of cinematic storytelling, often representative of a release of tension, a moment of acceptance, or some other instance of resolution. From Rutger Hauer musing on memories like “tears in rain” as his Roy Batty shuts down at the end of Blade Runner to Andy Dufresne reaching up to catch droplets after escaping Shawshank Penitentiary, a good downpour has helped convey to us the measure of an instant. It’s import. It’s timelessness.
Far less renowned than these examples is Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s 2012 psychological horror film Kotoko; a dark, disquieting gem that I recently managed to catch up on (a blind-faith purchase of the Third Window Films release, recently snapped up in a sale). The film is bracing, to say the least. One of the most grimly compelling and shocking I’ve seen in a long time.
In a collaboration that matches the intensity of the one between Lars Von Trier and pop experimentalist Björk in Dancer in the Dark, Kotoko finds Tsukamoto teamed up with Japanese singer/songwriter Cocco for this deep dive into mental illness. Cocco fearlessly portrays the eponymous Kotoko; a young single mother who is prone to self-harm and who suffers from a curious condition that causes her to see threatening doubles of people. She can’t ever be sure which is the genuine article and which is a figment preparing to attack her.
Thanks to her associated freak-outs (captured with Tsukamoto’s trademark intensity), Kotoko loses custody of her infant son and her mental health starts to tailspin. A concerned stranger, renowned novelist Seitaro (Tsukamoto himself), brings the fleeting promise of rescue, however their burgeoning relationship quickly turns out to be dangerous in the extreme. Seitaro is a masochist who encourages Kotoko to torture him; grueling sessions that do nothing to alleviate her compulsion to carve up her arms. It makes for a brutal second act, one that comes to a gut-punch end when it is revealed that Seitaro isn’t real, but a sustained delusion in line with Kotoko’s prior hallucinations.
Ultimately, Kotoko’s spiral leads to her seemingly unavoidable commitment at a psychiatric facility. It is here that Tsukamoto makes his offering to the trope of the rainstorm revelation; a remarkable moment in a film studded with bracing sequences.
Standing outside the facility, under guard by an orderly who offers her an umbrella that she declines to use, Kotoko begins to dance. It isn’t the first time in the film that Cocco’s career outside of the film is wielded or referenced. Earlier on, on at least two occasions, Kotoko sings to show-stopping effect. Here, we are offered another kind of performance; one created from dramatic, expressive gesture.
As the rain soaks her, we sense Tsukamoto not only acknowledging his lead actor’s other career and talents (just as Von Trier had Björk burst into song), but also the international history and notoriety of so-called J-Horror. The image of a Japanese woman with lank, raven hair has become intrinsically linked to the country’s horror cinema, largely thanks to the notoriety of Sadako in the Ring series. Kotoko itself is a horror picture, but its an A-typical one. Instead of ghosts or curses, it deals in the harsh predicaments of extensive psychological unrest. Though what is ‘real’ is often up for guessing, it portrays horrors that are far closer to our tangible existence. This scene, in which Kotoko becomes drenched, feels like Tsukamoto underscoring how different his film is to the assumed tropes of J-Horror. His protagonist may look the part, but her dance is far removed from any sense of threat or antagonism.
Rather, it is an act of pure expression. For the character, the motivations for the dance may initially seem unclear. There is no measurable cathartic event to tie it to; no resolution of story or moment of realisation. The character is separated from her son. Medicated. Isolated. Has been through the wringer for so long that this sudden explosion of emotive gesture might seem implicitly out of character.
But perhaps there is acceptance to be found here, as the rain crashes down and Kotoko dances. One might see her commitment to an institution as an act of imprisonment, but one might also see it as a positive step for her development, also. Finally, she has care. Finally, she can feel some measure of protection. For Kotoko, life has always meant a kind of imprisonment; imprisoned within a mind and body that seems hellbent on betraying her. The literal confinement of the asylum means relatively little to her. The dance isn’t in defiance of her incarceration, but almost feels complimentary to it. As though only now does she feel the sense of safety to express herself in such an outwardly engaging manner. We previously saw her singing quietly aboard a commuter train, or in performance indoors for a character that turned out to be imaginary. This scene suggests the start of a new era for Kotoko. An emergence. A new confidence. It helps engender her commitment as a positive step. Tsukamoto’s depiction of mental health care is exceedingly positive, especially after the nightmares evidenced earlier in his film.
And, for a character often consumed by fear of the society around her, it represents Kotoko’s most uninhibited moment. She dances for herself. No one else.
She is visited by her son (grown older now; letting us know that some time has passed). The film ends with him returning a gesture she made during his infancy. For the first time, maybe, Kotoko has the possibility of a bright future ahead of her, and a genuine reciprocal relationship grounded in love. After one of the more harrowing descents into madness filmed in the last decade, there’s hope to be had after all.