Mondo Sonico de Kanako: the music of THE WORLD OF KANAKO

2-TWOK-WhisperThe WORLD OF KANAKO is the latest in a line of several films helmed by Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima, but is closest in spirit to its immediate predecessor CONFESSIONS. Both are adapted from literature, more specifically tales of a current generation of youth acting out in ways unfathomable to those that spawned them. As a result both are forced into situations of violent conflict with, and perpetual lack of understanding for, one another.

This powerful 1-2 punch of films also chronicles various individuals’ descents into hell as they are pulled into the growing vortexes of suffering by the most pained central figures around them. The downward spirals are all encompassing, and made alarmingly entertaining at times due in no small part to the diverse and meaningful palette of music Nakashima employs. Not only does his excellent taste help to complement and enhance the emotional drama in scenes, they add a playful flair to the otherwise heavy transgressions on screen. Even more so this time around, music is a trigger to underscore particular recurring themes. It is also a sign of the culture that surrounds the characters in the story, pervades their lives, no different than us the viewers.

I decided to dive into the film another time, on this occasion attempting to recreate its dizzying path with an emphasis on its sonic features. It was a harder task than I’d imagined it would be, a virtual trip down the rabbit hole, bringing to mind the same allusion made in Kanako to Alice as an escape from reality (for some pleasurable, for others a nightmare). In my pursuit I realized Nakashima’s hip soundtrack is something of a gateway to discovery of some of Japan’s elusive underground music landscapes and edgier pop. The soundtrack itself not getting its own release (a mystery since the CONFESSIONS soundtrack did and this is very much its equal), but rather bundled with the domestic release of the movie on dvd. A sole reason I can think of for keeping the soundtrack obscured is it is a collection of music that perfectly complements themes of disorientation and confusion running through the film. Old familiar songs appear but with different twists – as covers or in a strange context. Songs that approximate moods from specific time periods or genres in American culture end up being the product of Japanese artists.

After a good chunk of my mind was blown by sonic oddities like Trippple Nipples’ ‘LSD’, and I saw my Macbook Pro survive one too many flirtations with free download website that wanted to install something unknown into it, I called it a day. So while I cannot yet tell you the artist who performed the smoldering version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ heard throughout the film, I have compiled some videos and taken some notes on how the soundtrack of WORLD OF KANAKO is an essential element of this unrefined cinematic experience.

Panis Angelicus by Cesar Franck

This mournful religious choir performance bookends the film as a pure snow comes down on a Japanese cityscape. It is a holiday that is not celebrated for religious reasons, but people are seen going through the motions of dining out with loved ones and reveling in near new years’ cheer. Meanwhile, unseemly bouts of suffering filter through, a ghastly triple murder at the outset, and a weariness of delving into so much psychic pain at its close.

Gone Away Dream by Barbara Borra

The words “A loving life and a loving home” appear as alcoholic private detective Akikazu envisions the idealized family life that is far from his grasp. It is an easygoing waltz recalling 1960’s America, sung by an apparently Italian vocalist who has performed on other Japanese OST’s before, but whose activity is elusive. The word ‘dream’ appearing right in the title is a none too subtle reference to the theme of escape from reality that plays a big role in the movie, and it is not the only song to do so. The song appears later on, ironically, as layers of humanity are stripped from an Akikazu who has been pointed in the direction of a bigger monster, given an excuse to unleash his inner demons. We see a part of him whose desire laid bare is to destroy the dream. And this he does.

Free Fall By Yoko Kanno with Ryo Nagano

A dream pop song that I could’ve been told was a product of Elliot Smith and I would’ve bought it. It is an impossibly catchy, feel good, lush tune that desperately needs to exist in its own life outside of KANAKO. But it is utterly brilliant within it, as essential to its identity as Radiohead’s ‘Last Flowers’ was to CONFESSIONS. The song appears on cue when the film flashes back to 3 years prior to the central story, a teen beset with the most teenage case of angst is seen moping, an outcast who is constantly bullied. Yet, all pain is erased by the perfectly angelic appearance of Fujishima Kanako. It is a most pristine love at first sight experience. The (cruel) joke of it is the eventual floor dropping out to reveal a hellish abyss where salvation was thought to be. The Barbara Borra track is used to similar effect, making pain that much more palpable by dangling a truly blissful sensation in front of us. It’s absence makes the heartbreak stronger.

‘Denden Passion’ by Dempagumi

Many of the more modern-sounding tracks came in a blur during an underground rave-like party scene. Here is where visual flourishes and psychedelic effects were heavily emplyed. Songs came in a blur, starting with this song that could be regarded as J-Pop on speed. Nothing serious in mind is seriously head-spinning. Print club graphics pop onto the screen imbuing adolescent cute onto a bad acid trip, as the teen crushed out on Kanako is suddenly in way over his head. Cleverly, a snippet of this mostly harmless time stamped flash in the pan is used in such a way to instill panic and anxiety around the ritual bonding of a current generation.

LSD by Tripple Nipples

The party continues, as does the descent into loss of control. And the generation gap is further emphasized with the scene and sounds feeling even more alien. Musically, it’s all obnoxious screams coated in sugar and reverb, with a rave of effects whirring around and around. This trio occupies some real estate in Tokyo’s underground music scene, but information is hard to come by about this enigmatic unit.

Fog by Daoko

The party is now starting to simmer, eyes glaze over, and another side of Kanako begins to show: the center of attention, a cult of personality… Here is another artists making cult status music on Tokyo’s cool fringe, as glitchy chip hop and stream of consciousness vocals blend into a soothing spell. It is like Kanako finding herself at ease in the hidden realm of a 3 AM drug party.

‘Rusalka – Song to the Moon’ by Antonin Dvorak

A lush mournful opera from Czech plays as illusion is shattered, the innocent at first believing he had found love realizes he is the butt of a brutal joke. Akikazu is faced with ugly truths about Kanako, about himself… Is there a connection between the opera’s theme and the events onscreen? It is interesting that Rusalka involves the daughter of a goblin considering the constant reminders that Kanako is the stuff of her father, Akikazu. Rusalka seeks love despite her form, inaccessible to humans, yet everyone wants to love Kanako. Have forces beyond her control made her into what she is? Would she be better able to love if not for he that brought her into the world?

Under the Sky by Yasushi Sasamoto

A suave flash of 70s funk that could be right out of a Blaxploitation film but is in fact performed by a Japanese band of a bygone era, which little information could be obtained about. It signals the charge into action of Akikazu and a ruthless killer for hire. When Akikazu is pointed in his direction, both go at it in a blaze of guns and machismo, and both seem to revel in the violence-filled moments, even as others around them are swallowed up by the horror. Here dreams are again a surrogate for a painful and far less glamorous reality, in which men act out gun-weilding fantasies set to a grooy soundtrack.

‘Everybody Loves Somebody’ by Dean Martin

A heart-warming sentiment that is hard to swallow after enduring the psychic pain exchanged between everyone in the film and those they are connected to. With the tension ratcheted up, the kitsch novelty brings about an expulsion of air, a loosening of the knot in one’s stomach allowing a reprieve from all of that pent up aggression as the film comes to an end. It is one of the many reminders in the film that the characters do not exist in a vacuum; the culture informs them of what their dreams should be. The gap between dream and reality is a killer.

This is but a bit of the THE WORLD OF KANAKO’s diverse soundtrack. Other genres in the mix include rockabilly, dubstep, and beautiful soundscapes, the latter also arranged by Yoko Kanno. The film is playing in select theaters across the US now, and is available on VOD. It will also be shown at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Yonkers December 11 through 13.