The World of Kanako is not a happy place. Falling under the “Extreme Cinema” banner, The World of Kanako is a brutal, nasty journey of discovery through some personal hells, leaving neither characters nor audience safe in its wake. There's also a little bit of Christmas in there.
Kanako is missing. She is the teenaged daughter of Akikazu Fujishima, an ex-detective on psychiatric medicine. Not much of the plot can be discussed because the film is about unraveling information about Kanako, Akikazu, and everyone in Kanako's high school life. Akikazu was so wrapped up in his work that he knew virtually nothing about his daughter, and there is a lot to learn. In a way it felt somewhere between the missing Bunny Lebowski in The Big Lebowski and Laura Paulmer from Twin Peaks, to make easy comparisons. There's a lot of figuring out who she is without meeting her, and trying to piece together the life of a teenager through her friends and environment.
I was worried immediately when Akikazu was introduced as being on medication for Schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a nuanced and serious illness, but in movie town it usually means split-personality, or at the very least (worst?) wacko screwball lulu lemons. Indeed, Akikazu could be described as wacko screwball lulu lemons, but he was never an unreliable narrator. This is important because there is some fantasizing from different character's points of view, and The World of Kanako kept it pretty clear what you were seeing (even when it messed with the formula.)
As reliable as Akikazu was, that didn't make him nice. No, pretty quickly you realize that he's not a great guy, along with just about everybody. Luckily he's charismatic and interesting enough to hook the viewer. The opening credits had a tongue-in-cheek 70's throwback sense of humor (oddly not surfacing again until towards the end), and aside from the laugh, it let you know that they were aiming for a hard-nosed 70's crime feel. But you don't know how far Akikazu or the filmmakers are willing to go. I mean operatic levels here. You'll want a shower afterwards.
Style-wise, director Tetsuya Nakashima had a lot of fun balancing gritty handheld fast cuts and muted colors with some spots of animation and colorful, loud dance scenes. Certain characters had thematic ties like this, such as young friend Ogata having what I think of as young adult media tied to him. There was a sense that Nakashima wanted to bust out and be more exploitative (particularly in the many instances of vehicular abuse), but he kept it mostly in check to not loose the oppressive mood. I do want to see the movie where he doesn't hold back, but I respect the restraint.
Now the difficult thing about making an oppressive movie with no relief is that there's no relief. As interested in Akikazu as I was, I never wanted him to succeed. He's just awful. Every person that matters is awful. Plus there's no humor (again aside from a couple odd moments towards the end) or grandstanding action spots. Certainly good and well-shot, but not big enough to get a fist pump or anything. So, it was tiring, and by the end I needed a break from all the bad people and things. As much as I enjoyed the last few scenes and revelations, it felt like they were holding the last scene just to squeeze the last bit of lemon in the wound.
If you're in the mood for a grueling, mean-spirited, visceral sex and drugs Christmas standard, The World of Kanako is the gut punch for you. Get your non-seasonal depression now on VOD and limited release.