Trauma, Traditional Gender Roles and Radiation Fears: Shinya Tsukamoto’s Kotoko

Chantal Bertalanffy | 21 March 2017.

[TW: discussions of domestic and physical violence]

Single-mom Kotoko (played by Japanese singer Cocco) is traumatized. She is the anti-heroine in Japanese cult director Shinya Tsukamoto’s psychological horror film of the same name, Kotoko (2011). The story revolves around her struggle to raise her baby while suffering from paranoia, reoccurring visions, self-harm, and other Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)-related symptoms of an unknown cause.

The opening of the film shows a little girl, presumably Kotoko, at the beach. The scene seems perfectly innocent as the waves reflect the glittering sunlight while the little girl dances carefree to traditional Japanese music. The significance of waves in Japan, however, changed dramatically a few months before the release of the film; The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami claimed the lives of more than 18,000 people, 120,000 houses were destroyed, and 80,000 residents needed to be evacuated due to the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Does Kotoko’s trauma stem from the waves?

The day before the initial film shoot, Tsukamoto went to a temple to pray for good fortune for his film, but the next day, the triple disaster hit Japan and he postponed filming. Once he started shooting a few months later, he felt the need to refer to the disaster through his choice of imagery, although he refrained from changing the script[1]. If the script was written prior to the disaster, then, what was it that Tsukamoto wanted to investigate through Kotoko’s trauma initially?


Kotoko, Movie Poster

For me, Kotoko’s trauma derives from the legacy of Japanese traditional gender roles, which oppress alternative identity formations outside heteronormativity. Kotoko, with its exaggerated explorations of Japanese society, therefore becomes a particularly interesting example of how, in times of extreme conditions, such as in the aftermath of a disaster, oppressive social structures can be unmasked.

Just before a tsunami hits, it sucks up the water by the shore and exposes what lies underneath. In much the same way, a disaster exposes hidden inequalities and vulnerabilities that help to structure societies (Hobson 10).

In the case of “post disaster” Japan, traditional gender roles came into question as the Fukushima crisis drove a wedge between the sexes and revealed a hidden power structure. Traditionally, the Japanese nation-state organizes gender according to an economic model in which labour is divided between the breadwinner father and the caretaker mother. Consequently, many fathers and other men perceived Fukushima as a threat to the stability of Japan’s socioeconomic system, while many mothers and other women worried about the health of their families (Morioka 104). Thus, even during the state of emergency, fathers prioritized their jobs. Japanese masculine identity, which is generated through institutional norms, made them choose work over evacuation. Gendered inequalities and vulnerabilities became especially apparent as some patriarchs undermined their wives’ decisions to evacuate to safer areas for the sake of their children.


Cocco as Kotoko, from Genkinahito

Many mothers, on the other hand, did not trust the government in its questionable handling of the Fukushima situation. For example, there is evidence that women became suspicious of the raise of the annual safety limit of radiation from one to 20 mSv, the refusal of local authorities to measure radiation in schoolyards, and especially of campaigns such as “Tabete ōen shiyō” (Support by eating), which urged people to buy and eat food from possibly contaminated areas in support of the economy. Furthermore, social norms of acceptable behaviour stood in contrast to what mothers perceived as responsible parenting. For example, political interest (let alone engagement) in the state’s nuclear energy policy was deemed inappropriate for women. Consequently, many mothers suffered psychological problems due to the stress of not having adequate information about the dangers of radiation exposure and the fear of not being able to protect their children (Brumfiel 293).

In this regard, Kotoko’s inability to make decisions for her and her baby’s life reflect the restrictions placed on maternal influence for Fukushima mothers in the wake of the disaster. In Kotoko’s case, this is reflected in her mental condition, resulting from an apparently unknown cause or trauma, which undermines her ability to be a good mother. Moreover, her mental condition deteriorates throughout the film, exacerbated by her fear of radiation (she refuses to take her baby outside and makes him an indoor sandbox – an important symbol, as fallout accumulates in sandboxes). Sadly, this fear leads to situations in which she puts her baby in danger (in one scene, for example, she holds her baby over the edge of a rooftop).

Kotoko’s mental conditions are compounded by her marginalization as a woman in society. Traditional gender roles mean the acceptance of the normative heterosexual couple as an ideal ideological model – the breadwinning father and the caring mother, which is why, in conservative Japan, single mothers hold a low social status. Kotoko, in fact, is a working single mother, who wears a fake wedding ring to keep men away. In Tsukamoto’s exaggerated version of Japanese society, however, heteronormativity denounces her existence. She tries to commit to a relationship with Tanaka (played by Tsukamoto himself), but fails. Being unable to partake in this society, she ends up in a mental institution – a horror scenario in true Tsukamoto fashion.

Finally, traditional gender roles undermine Kotoko’s ability to lead a self-determined life, which, I argue, reveals the cause of her trauma. In a key scene, this becomes apparent. Kotoko has a PTSD vision in which Tanaka beats her bloody, and Tsukamoto intercuts this scene with waves. In the PTSD  vision, Tanaka holds Kotoko’s life in his hands, just as patriarchy seized power over life and death decisions of women (and their children) in “post disaster” Japan. The difference is that Tanaka’s next blow could mean Kotoko’s death, while it remains questionable whether or not the pollution of Fukushima will have deadly effects. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that Fukushima caused trauma.

This month marks the 6th year anniversary of The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Has the horror of trauma been resolved in Japan? Perhaps more answers will await us in Tsukamoto’s next film.

About Chantal

Chantal is in her first year for a PhD in Japanese Studies. Chantal’s research investigates how post 3.11-cinema (referring to the date of the triple catastrophe of the earthquake, tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Tōhoku in 2011) tries to explain, negotiate and reconcile the complexities of collective national trauma and its aftermath.

Article edited by Ian Anderson, Amadeus Chen, Eszter Simor and Erden Göktepe.

Works Cited

Geoff, Brumfiel. “Fukushima: Fallout of Fear.” Nature 493.7432 (2013): 290. Print.

Hobson, Christopher. “Rethinking Human Security after the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Accident.” United Nations University 1 (2014): 1-13. Print.

Morioka, Rika. “Japanese Families Decoupling Following the Fukushima Nuclear Plant Disaster.” Men, Masculinities and Disaster. Eds. Enarson, Elaine and Bob Pease. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2016. 103-14. Print.

Slater, David H., Rika Morioka, and Haruka Danzuka. “Micro-Politics of Radiation: Young Mothers Looking for a Voice in Post–3.11 Fukushima.” Critical Asian Studies 46.3 (2014): 485-508. Print.


Kotoko. Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto. Perf. Cocco and Shinya Tsukamoto. 2011. Third Window Films, 2012. DVD.


[1] Tsukamoto, DVD special features interview (2012)

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