When genre and arthouse cinema collide, the result is usually extremely niche and divisive. Rarely do these film have any commercial appeal, which is why Kasane is such an interesting film. Veteran director Yuichi Sato comes with a film that is in constant search for the ideal middle ground, aiming to blend arthouse, genre and commercial influences in equal proportions in order to create a film that breaks down traditional classification.
This doesn't automatically mean that Kasane will appeal to a broad audience of course. Most people have their expectations of what a "good" film should be and by trying to combine all these different aspects of cinema into one single film, it is certain to alienate the (rather significant) group of people who prefer to stay within their comfort zone. This complete rejection of cinematic purity makes for a rather uneven film, but one that should have enough value to win people over in the end. At least, that's how I experienced it.
Kasane is a mix of Japanese body/mutation horror (think Orochi or Rampo Noir) and Western psychological horror (think Black Swan or Neon Demon). These two stretches provide ample elements to create a fruitful mix of genre and arthouse, the direction on the other hand keeps it relative light and fast-paced, underlining the film's commercial intentions. It's a precarious balance no doubt and the execution is not without faults, but ultimately it does add to the bottom line.
The film revolves around two women who are tragically tied to the theatre. Kasane is a talented actress barred from the stage because of a huge scar running across her face, Nina has all the traits to become an acting sensation, except for the actual talent. A mysterious lipstick is about to solve their problems though. The unique family heirloom gives Kasane the power to swap faces with Nina, allowing the two to combine their strengths and become the person they were destined to be.
Visually the film draws heavily from its genre roots. Bold colour filters, expressive camera work and a more fetish-like approach to the horror elements are key to the final look. It's an attractive-looking film, with a couple of stand-out scenes (the final performance is pretty spectacular) and some landmark shots, on the other hand the finish can be a little lacking and the inconsistency in quality can be jarring at times. As a core genre fan I liked what I saw, but I'm certain it won't be everybody's cup of tea.
The soundtrack is a lot less prominent. It's a mostly functional affair that matches the mood of a certain scene, but rarely directs any attention to itself, let alone tries to actively shape the atmosphere. Within those boundaries it's not a bad score, it never distracts or irritates, but a film like Kasane could've benefited from a more outspoken and leading choice of tracks. It's a waste of potential that no doubt could've played an active part in binding everything together even more tightly.
The acting too is a little uneven and inconsistent. Tadanobu Asano and Kyoko Yoshine are pretty flawless, then again I wouldn't expect anything less from Asano. Tao Tsuchiya's performance is a tad more inconsistent though. Playing a "bad actress" is always tricky and the boundary between performance and actual acting chops isn't that obvious when watching Tsuchiya play. The secondary cast is adequate but doesn't have too much to do as the film keeps a rather tight focus on the main trio of characters.
What keeps the film interesting is the lack of a clear good guy/bad guy divide. The three main characters are using each another to better their own lives, but they all end up suffering from the choices they make. As an audience, it's not very easy picking sides and while they can all be held accountable for the events that are unfolding, it's equally hard to blame them for trying to escape their dire lives. This makes for a very interesting contrast with all the 'beauty is dumb is cruel' narratives that usually form the basis for this type of film.
Kasane is not a film without problems, how much you'll be able to appreciate it largely depends on how you value its attempts to bring together different stretches of cinema. That said, it's definitely not without quality either. The film looks beautiful, the core drama is intriguing, ambiguous and heightened by minor fantastical elements and the payoff is more than satisfying. I found it very easy to forgive the film some bumps along the road, but your mileage may vary. Whatever the case, if you run into Kasane, just gives the film a chance because it really deserves the benefit of the doubt.