Despite achieving considerable international success at a time when most Japanese filmmakers exclusively cater to the home market, Tetsuya Nakashima has amassed a fair share of detractors for his perceived emphasis on visual stimulation over emotional depth. Still, even those left cold by his kaleidoscopic oeuvre must concede that, when Nakashima picks a style, he wholeheartedly commits to it, as demonstrated by the giddy bubblegum pop of Kamikaze Girls (2004) and flamboyant magical realism of Memories of Matsuko (2006). For his latest feature The World of Kanako, the director takes a fairly standard pulp mystery narrative and lathers it with his heightened aesthetic sensibility resulting in a noir pastiche where every frame suggests the influence of potentially lethal quantities of acid. Setting out his stylistic agenda from the opening montage with Instagram ready images of Tokyo during the festive season giving way to a grisly convenience store slaughter, Nakashima clearly has no qualms about losing a few viewers if he can further tantalize those who are up for his signature brand of precisely orchestrated madness.
The aforementioned crime scene serves to introduce the film’s hardboiled anti-hero Akikazu Fujishima (Koji Yakusho in furious form), an ex-cop turned security guard who is estranged from his family and lumbers through the day under the influence of prescription medication for various anxieties. When his ex-wife Kiriko (Asuka Kurosawa) calls to inform him that their 17-year-old daughter Kanako (Nana Komatsu) has been missing for almost a week, he vows to find her. It’s never established whether Akikazu was a particularly effective detective prior to his breakdown but if so, he’s now a pale imitation of his former professional self, chain-smoking, sweating profusely, and immediately losing his temper with anyone who threatens to impede his quest. After receiving the news from his distressed ex-wife, he tries to sharpen up his act by donning a crumpled white suit and slicking back his hair, but doesn’t look like he would be capable of finding a set of keys that have fallen down the back of his sofa.
Nonetheless, he makes steady progress out of sheer force of will. Using increasingly vicious methods to solicit information from the teenager’s friends and nefarious acquaintances, Akikazu realizes that Kanako is far from the innocent youth of his rose-tinted memories and has in fact been leading a hedonistic, drug-fueled lifestyle while manipulating those in her orbit for cruel amusement. The bloodstains on Akikazu’s clothing and the damage to his vintage car are testament to his perseverance as he unravels a web of corruption that has Kanako at its center, although her exact whereabouts continues to elude him. Akikazu’s bruising efforts are interspersed with flashbacks to illustrate the transgressions of his offspring, which are initially presented in perky teen movie fashion with romantic pop music and bursts of animation. But soon Kanako’s angelic demeanor is revealed to be a façade for remorseless evil via pill-popping party sequences and her wicked mistreatment of naïve admirer Boku (Hiroya Shimizu) who she rescues from a cycle of bullying only to send him down a path of even greater misery.
Adapted from a novel by Akio Fukamachi, this is a supremely cynical film that initially appears to be about how a neglected teenager has been pulled down the rabbit hole of excess only to become a venomous portrait of widespread social decay that uses a splashy postmodern canvas to show that everyone is culpable, regardless of how they present themselves or are seen by others. Indeed, the yakuza are possibly the most rational group on display in terms of how they handle problematic situations. Japan’s education system, its police force, drug peddlers, and absent parents are cast in a revealing light as Nakashima tries to make some tough points through what is essentially a garish adult cartoon. There’s a retro ‘70s opening credits sequence that suggests a playful exploitation groove which occasionally returns via bursts of Peter Gunn-style guitar score to accompany Akikazu’s mission, but The World of Kanako is ultimately too mean spirited to sustain even a particularly grim strain of humour.
Amidst all the unpleasantness, Akikazu is the most decent character, if only by default. Make no mistake, he’s a reprehensible excuse for a human being who rapes his ex-wife and expects breakfast the following morning but at least does not try to disguise or justify his monstrosity whereas everyone else hides behind stock social identities. As appalled as Akikazu is by Kanako’s behaviour, he finds a perverse sense of pride in the fact that she truly is his progeny. Beneath the labyrinthine plotting and non-stop finger pointing, this is the story of a father and daughter who are similarly self-destructive with Nakashima hurtling through a run of twists as if to reflect how these nihilistic characters are eager to get their wretched existences over with.
Even though The World of Kanako is unmistakably a Nakashima film, some of his more squeamish devotees who were jolted by the calculated cruelty of his high school revenge drama Confessions (2010) will be completely alienated by the hallucinogenic depravity on display here. The character of Detective Asai (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who jovially monitors Akikazu’s movements while sucking on lollypops or eating chocolate cake, is possibly meant to reflect the twisted pleasure that the audience is intended to find in all the chaos, but whatever sugar-rush is induced at the outset by Yoshiyuki Koike’s rapid-fire editing is likely to result in a crash by the halfway mark. Yakusho’s admirable commitment to a character that combines George C. Scott’s beleaguered parent in Hardcore (1979) with Harvey Keitel’s debauched cop from Bad Lieutenant (1992) just about powers The World of Kanako to the finish line, by which point most viewers will feel as bludgeoned as much of the film’s ill-fated supporting cast.