Kanako (Nana Komatsu) is a picture-perfect high school princess: gorgeous, popular, a straight-A student and party girl with a fervent following. Then one day Kanako disappears mysteriously. Her father, disgraced Detective Akihiro Fujishima (Koji Yakusho) begins an obsessive search, using any means, in the belief finding Kanako will restore the idyllic life they led before he himself destroyed his relationship with now-embittered ex-wife (Asuka Kurosawa). Yet as Akihiro tracks down Kanako's former schoolteacher (Miki Nakatani), classmates and juvenile delinquent Endo (Fumi Nikaido), he discovers his seemingly angelic daughter was leading a sinister secret life. Far from a picture-perfect princess, Kanako is a monster that brutally destroys all who fall under her spell. Yet everyone, including Akihiro, still wants to be near Kanako.
Based on the novel 'Hateshinaki Kawaki' by Akio Fukamachi, The World of Kanako sees Yakusho essay that male archetype of pre-millennial cinema: the burnt-out cop, only in a post-millennial context where his raging middle-aged machismo is obsolete. Akihiro Fujishima is a rampant misogynist adrift in a post-social media, kawaii candy-coloured Japan that worships at the altar of youth and femininity. In contrast to Yakusho's more usual contemplative, even downright genteel screen persona, here he plays an absolute bastard. Akihiro brutalizes suspects and manhandles women throughout the movie, reaching an all-time loathsome low in an horrific scene where he rapes his wife then demands she make him breakfast.
It is bold enough to centre a movie around such an unrepentant asshole. Yet interestingly, far from a quest for redemption, the spine of the story tracks Akihiro's slow-dawning realization that he has not only passed his evil onto his daughter but that she has surpassed him. Nakashima interweaves the detective story with flashbacks detailing Kanako's relationship with a smitten, lonely and bullied high school boy referred to only as I (Hiroya Shimizu). Gradually the film peels back the layers of sweet soft-focus teen romance to reveal a reality that is truly nightmarish. For make no mistake: Kanako is a nightmare creature. In a remarkable screen debut achingly lovely teen idol Nana Komatsu fashions her into one of the most chilling and memorable screen monsters in recent times: poised, supermodel beautiful, scarily smart and shockingly amoral.
A few critics drew comparisons between the story-structure used here and the Harry Lime/Holly Martins dynamic central to The Third Man (1949). The World of Kanako also evokes aspects of Laura Palmer's descent into a shadowy twilight realm in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and echoes themes prevalent in Shion Sono's Suicide Club (2002), another story where an ageing male detective delves into a sinister subculture only to find his own daughter is involved. An uncomfortable aspect to many recent Japanese cautionary tales where adults confront the excesses of youth culture is, more often than not, the conclusion is modern Japan spawned a generation of sexy, social media-obsessed sociopaths that are best wiped out. On the one hand The World of Kanako is among the most audacious and challenging horror-thrillers made in recent years. On a technical level it is a cinematic wonder, a tour de force of non-linear storytelling, bravura editing and intoxicating, candy-coloured visual trickery. Paced like rollercoaster ride through a fever dream, the film melds crazy Seventies cop thriller action sequences, extreme splatter, Instagram-styled photo-montages of kawaii-cute party girls, anime dream sequences and images of sex, torture and disembowelment. Yet for all the film's shock tactics, splatter and social outrage, its conclusions are frustratingly conservative.
Opening with a quote from Jean Cocteau ("An era is only confused by a confused mind") it justly chastens a lack of understanding among the older generation of unrepentant alpha males like Akihiro but fails to counterbalance its portrait of amoral youth with a single positive teen character. Even the few that are not terrifying delinquents are drawn as giggly, vapid and amoral, implying that youth culture itself breeds sociopathic tendencies. Such a blanket dismissal of youth culture blunts the film's social satire into empty nihilism: kids suck and it's their parents' fault. Nakashima wants us to perceive Kanako as a kind of ouroboros figure, both the product and architect of a sick society. Yet in casting a yakuza as the closest thing to a moral authority when he laments kids, young delinquent girls especially, have no respect for the old code, The World of Kanako unmasks itself as yet another tiresome example of men projecting their neuroses and anxieties onto young women. Which is a shame because, in its better moments, the film spins a nightmare unlike any other.