No Glimmer of Hope: The Fucked-Up World of Tetsuya Nakashima

Guest author James Marsh explores Drafthouse Films’ THE WORLD OF KANAKO and its place in the Japanese auteur’s filmography.

This article contains spoilers!

Sex, drugs, booze, rape, buggery, murder, assisted suicide and organ harvesting––all par for the course in Tetsuya Nakashima’s The World of Kanako, a touching tale of a father’s search for his estranged teenage daughter.

While its premise may sound similar, Taken this most definitely is not, not unless Liam Neeson discovered that his daughter had not in fact been kidnapped, but was actually the mastermind behind the entire East European sex-trafficking ring. Only then would it get anywhere close to resembling The World of Kanako.

One of the greatest crimes against Japanese Cinema is that Tetusya Nakashima is not a household name in the United States, and that until now, only one of his films is readily available on home video. His 2010 masterpiece Confessions was selected as Japan’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award that year, and yet the film––perhaps the greatest thing Nakashima has yet unleashed on the world––remains frustratingly unavailable.

Although he had already directed a handful of films, Nakashima’s international breakthrough came in 2004 with his kaleidoscopic Kamikaze Girls, an adaptation of the light novel Shimotsuma Story–Yankee Girl & Lolita Girl, by Novala Takemoto. It tells the story of two very different characters, whose unlikely friendship transcends their disparate tastes, attitudes and social standing. It’s a delightful and life-affirming film, the likes of which we would never see from the director again.

Nakashima’s subsequent films take an increasingly bleak look at the roles of women in contemporary Japan, how they are persecuted by an archaically misogynistic society, but also how his heroines become increasingly complicit in their own downfalls. Memories of Matsuko (2006), Paco and the Magical Picture Book (2008) and Confessions all centre around women who are treated terribly by the men in their lives, be they lovers, father figures or even children. But in each film, Nakashima’s women become stronger, more resilient and, ultimately, more dangerous.

Memories of Matsuko in some ways resembles a rebooted take on Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman (1963), albeit embellished with a lurid colour scheme, animated sequences and raucous musical numbers. It details the calamitous life of a poor young woman and the string of unsuccessful relationships that send her into a tailspin of never-ending suffering and despair. That film’s star, Miki Nakatani, returns in The World of Kanako, again portraying a school teacher whose extra-curricular interactions with her students ultimately brings about her own downfall.

The relationship between educator and student is also the beating heart of Confessions, in which a grief-stricken teacher (Takako Matsu) exacts brutal, unflinching vengeance on her own class of middle school students, whom she holds directly responsible for the death of her infant daughter (Pacific Rim’s Mana Ashida). The film is an incredible tour de force of meticulously crafted sound, image and story-telling technique, resulting in an immaculate tale of horrific crimes in a world of endemic emotional detachment.

In The World of Kanako, Nakashima takes this carefully established aesthetic and punches it in the dick. The film explodes in a violent rampage that never lets up, as hard-drinking ex-cop Fujishima (Kōji Yakusho) tears up Tokyo looking for his missing daughter, Kanako (Nana Komatsu). Separated from his wife after pummelling her lover half to death, Fujishima hasn’t seen Kanako in years, yet when she disappears, his wife has nowhere else to turn. Wrestling with inner demons of his own, Fujishima soon discovers that Kanako’s angelic appearance shrouds an equally twisted and malevolent soul.

Recalling John Ford’s The Searchers, Fujishima becomes increasingly horrified the more he learns about his daughter, and more desperate to find her and punish her himself. While also looking for a glimmer of redemption along the way, the film becomes a heartbroken, fruitless attempt to find something, somewhere that resembles a soul and suggest that humanity can be saved from total damnation.

Narrated by a nameless student (Hiroya Shimizu), a classmate of Kanako who is savagely and routinely beaten until she comes to his aid, The World of Kanako flips back and forth between Fujishima’s rabid search and his daughter’s final weeks. Supposedly grieving from the suicide of her boyfriend, the more we glimpse behind her pristine veneer, the more terrifying she becomes, while our narrator seems destined to become her latest victim.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but in The World of Kanako, our eponymous heroine needs no provocation to become a sadistic, seductive black widow, intent on manipulating, humiliating and ultimately murdering the young boys who fall at her feet. The film’s Japanese title “Kawaki” translates literally as “thirst”, which might just as easily refer to Kanako’s own predatory hunger to destroy those around her as her father’s need for alcohol, answers, redemption or revenge.

Fujishima prowls the city like a rabid wolf, lost and directionless in an environment he doesn’t understand. Like John McClane’s vest in Die Hard, his white linen suit becomes a blood and shit-smeared tapestry for his efforts and struggles. As the opening credits reflect, he regards himself as a heroic hardboiled detective, craving a TV perfect family he has no hope of attaining. At best he is a washed-up rocker adrift in a sea of EDM pill heads, but more likely he’ll just die in a pool of his own piss, at the hands of the yakuza, the cops…or his own self-loathing.

There’s something terrifyingly conservative about Nakashima’s vision, as the film clearly wants us to side with Fujishima, despite his flaws, and to demonize the young, maladjusted teen he did a piss poor job of raising. The director’s attitude towards hedonistic, self-destructive youth reflects the same “taiyuzoku” sun tribe mentality that terrified the older generations back in the 1950’s, much as James Dean and Marlon Brando were doing back home. But what The World of Kanako demonstrates is that Nakashima’s pessimistic worldview extends to all of us. Human beings, every last one of us, are just the worst, and none more so than pretty teenage girls.

Did I mention this is a Christmas movie?