“The World of Kanako” (2014): Lurid Mystery Examines the Underbelly of a Teenage Girl’s Secret Life

Director Tetsuya Nakashima’s new suspense thriller The World of Kanako is one the most visually striking films I have seen this year, and it is also one of the most violent, harrowing, and brutal films of 2015. Its characters live in a maelstrom of vices such as drug addiction, prostitution, and murder, or in quieter worlds of denial or ignorance until these worlds are shattered by ugly truths.

Most of the characters are plagued by varying degrees of insanity; some take medications or seek professional help for it, while others let it run wild and unchecked. In a cinematic world where most of the people are insane, everything does not make perfect sense. That is certainly the case with The World of Kanako. Morals are in short supply here, as well. Selfish and nonsensical acts are plentiful. We are left with questions after the film finishes, not unlike some of the dramatis personae.

Fashion model Nana Komatsu stars in a breakout performance as the mysterious Kanako, for whom several people are searching. (All photos accompanying this article are courtesy of Drafthouse Films.)

Showa Fujishima (veteran actor Koji Yakusho, who horror film fans may know from director Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s classics Cure [1997] and Pulse [2001]) is a heavy-drinking, heavily medicated former detective living in squalor who is also a person of interest in a headlines-grabbing triple-murder case. He is a sort of self-loathing reverse King Midas whose touch withers, injures, or destroys whoever he comes in contact with. His estranged wife Koriko (Asuka Kurosawa) calls him when she suspects him of having kidnapped their 17-year-old daughter Kanako (Nana Komatsu in a riveting first starring role), which he didn’t do. Kanako has been missing for a few days, so Showa decides to try to find her. He begins with some former high school classmates, and right away he sees that neither he nor her mother knew anything at all about Kanako’s private life.

Kanako had a knack for coming to the aid of bullied school classmates. Her first such case eventually committed suicide and was followed by Boku (Hiroya Shimizu). Boku also searches for the missing Kanako after he becomes the victim of a violent attack. These are not the only people looking for her, though, as her father discovers.

Showa Fujishima (Koji Yakusho in a bravura performance) searches for his missing daughter and leaves a violent wake in doing so in The World of Kanako.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is referenced several times during the film, and Fujishima and Boku find themselves falling further and further down their own rabbit holes as they hunt for Kanako, though the characters they meet are far less fanciful and much more prone to violence than those who Alice met in the novel.

Some readers may want to be warned that The World of Kanako contains rape scenes. Although the scenes are usually building up to rape or the aftermath, with the actual act offscreen or cut away from to a different scene, there is at least one brief exception.

The film doesn’t shy away from lengthy depictions of other forms of violence, though. Stabbings, shootings, and brutal beatings abound, and special-effects blood itself is on screen so often that it is practically a co-star.

To say that Showa Fujishima and his daughter Kanako share a complex relationship would be an understatement.

Director Tetsuya Nakashima cowrote the screenplay – based on the novel Hateshinaki Kawaki by Akio Fukamachi – with Nobuhiro Monma and Miako Tadano. The trio’s approach employs flashbacks, alternating perspectives, and even animation to peel away layers of the mystery of not only who Kanako is and where she might be, but also to expose or hint at the secret lives of other characters, as well.

The story is lurid in the shocking, sensational sense, and the film’s visuals are often lurid in the colorful sense.  Director of photography Shoichi Ato does a breathtaking job using a dizzying palette, immersing viewers in gorgeous snowfalls; depressing muted greys of offices and apartment blocks; bright, vivid depictions of discotheques; and bucketloads of flowing crimson.

Director Tetsuya Nakashima expertly paces the proceedings. From the film’s frenetic opening moments with quick cuts that simultaneously introduce viewers to characters and give a feeling of disorientation, to the frenzied throwback opening titles that are reminiscent of sixties and seventies action and spy movies, to rare moments of calm and meditation, to shots that linger on acts of cruelty and savagery, The World of Kanako is a master class in direction. I had seen and greatly admired Nakashima’s Confessions (2010), about a middle school teacher seeking revenge on two of her students who killed her young daughter, but it was quite different in tone, so his new effort had, for me, an unexpected manic pace to it.

Kanako’s former teacher Rie Higashi (Miki Nakatani) is subjected to heated questionings by Fujishima regarding his daughter Kanako’s past.

Though the film boasts a large cast of supporting players, all of whom do a terrific job no matter their role or screen time, The World of Kanako has three absolute standouts: Koji Yakusho as Showa Fujishima, Nana Komatsu as Kanako, and Miki Nakatani as Rie Higashi, one of Kanako’s former teachers. Yakusho is amazing as the gruff, grizzled, self-destructive father who will throw himself in harm’s way if it means finding out whether or not his daughter is alive, though not for the reasons you might suspect. Take the archetype of the seventies cinema antihero, strip away any decency and sense of moral code, and add heavy doses of masochism and sadism, and you might come close to having an idea of what Showa Fujishima is like. Komatsu is mesmerizing as Nakano, though to explain why would be treading into spoiler territory, something that potential viewers should absolutely avoid. Suffice it to say that Komatsu shows a wide range of emotions in her portrayal of a little girl lost, and never falters. Miki Nakatani’s portrayal teacher Rie Higashi is nothing short of gripping. Grue Believers may remember Nakatani from Ringu (Ring, 1998) and Ringu 2 (Ring 2, 1999).

Stark and stylized, ugly in its portrayals of violence yet gorgeous to behold, with genius direction and marvelous performances, and sporting a wickedly cool soundtrack, to boot, The World of Kanako is a film that resonated with me ever since I viewed it, and I will revisit it again soon. I expect it to rank in my top 5 films of this year.

The World of Kanako: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)


Kanako poster

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.