Sion Sono  

Unique art-house Japanese film-maker that deals often with extreme subjects and horror, which he usually delivers in a somewhat deeper, surreal, artsy, or provocative package. His movies vary widely and unpredictably from extreme horror to art-house drama, action, gore, twisted entertainment or any other genre you can think of, with bursts of prolific energy. I tend to think of him as the slightly more art-house version of Takashi Miike, a little less whimsical perhaps and more interesting and challenging. Although, his occasionally frantic and energetic output sometimes rivals Miike at his craziest and most whimsical. He is most well known for Suicide Club and Love Exposure, but he has always evaded pigeon-holing with a wide variety of movies, including a silly horror movie about evil hair extensions (a statement on the overused long-haired-girl in Japanese horror), silly sex comedies, family-friendly fantasy, several conventional dramas, and violent movies involving energetic youth. Early films ranged from a hyper-kinetic student film (Man's Flower Road) about restless youth making its mark in any way possible versus quiet home, to a quiet story about a killer looking for the perfect room, to a Pinku erotic absurdity mixing pottery and sex. The following are only his more extreme movies.


Suicide Club  
A Japanese salad of art cinema, black-humor, horror, detective story, morality tale, and gore. People all over Japan are mysteriously committing suicide, 54 schoolgirls jump in front of a train in a huge splash of gore, wives cut themselves up, high school kids jump off roofs, etc. Detectives try to track down the cause of this phenomenon to no avail as only more mysteries pop up: Sport bags full of stitched pieces of human skin, anonymous kids on the phone spouting existential mumbo-jumbo, web-sites counting the suicides, a transvestite rock star who kicks animals to death in bowling alleys, and more. An interesting, bizarre, existential exploration of a (Japanese) society that has lost its individual identity, pop-culture sweeping people into losing themselves, teenagers and adults who mistakenly define themselves by their connection to other people and objects, and empty, dead people who only live through peer pressure, all thus committing suicide. This works best when viewed as a metaphysical horror movie in the vein of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Followed by the unnecessary Noriko's Dinner Table, an artsy, overlong but mostly conventional drama focusing on identity through family and emotion, featuring 'families for hire' but over-explaining everything to death with voice-overs.

Of Some Interest

A provocative art-house and surreal exploration of the Japanese softcore sex industry (Roman Pornos and others). It depicts and explores the mind of a young girl in the industry who is a model and actress. Except the movie constantly blurs the line between her roles and her own character, while at the same time blurring the line between her public image and devotion to being a slut or sex symbol, and her own inner feelings. She assumes the role of a whore, or is she really a whore in real life? A softcore actress is seemingly a whore in real life who takes on roles where she has to pretend to be a pure virgin, so where does she fit in exactly? Thus the actress switches between filmed subject, and an object abusing others, between a sex goddess celebrity and an abused whore, or between an innocent virgin seeking sex or a slut being used, and other contradictory roles. One scene turns out to be a play within a play within a play as it is repeated several times with different variations. Her mind is also explored with bizarre and colorfully surreal set-pieces. And one scene that seems to be taking place amidst her regular family and normal life suddenly becomes a filthy pornographic dinner conversation, thus blurring the line further. And finally, the movie makes a feminist rant that scoffs against the so-called sexual freedom of the sex industry. This is Sono in focused, thoughtful and provocative mode, in a trim 80 minutes for a change.

Cold Fish  
I see this as a psychological horror movie that lies somewhere between the dark human depths, desperate violence and depravity of a Gaspar No movie, and the exploitative grindhouse gore and pointless nastiness of a Miike film, but it belongs in neither category. A meek and morose pet-fish-salesman is stuck in a bad marriage with a bratty nightmare of a teenage daughter and an unhappy, pretty and selfish wife. When he meets an aggressively cheerful and pushy rival businessman who rescues his daughter from an arrest, the man takes over their life, and in no time at all he is suggesting business partnerships, adopting the daughter for his store, seducing then abusing the wife into sexual submission, and involving the meek husband in murder and criminal deals, complete with a systematic butchery of body parts to make the victim 'become invisible'. Matters turn worse and worse, the meek man pushed beyond his boundaries like Sumner in Straw Dogs resulting in a climax of violence, gore and rape that must be seen to be believed.

Guilty of Romance  
Probably Sono's deepest movie, but also his most sleaziest, if only because the core material is so good and has been wrapped in inappropriate excess. The theme is the meaning of sex and relationships, and what people may do when there is no meaning. Words in a poem are used as metaphors for people that caught a glimpse of something, the blood and body behind words and sex, people who, in desperation, replace it with something else, like money. In other words, a woman deprived of intimacy and love may simply resort to prostitution and exchange her body for money, since nothing else is reciprocated and exchanged in any case. Thus, a whore may try to find her identity in the exchange of money, and she may even embrace objectification as the only means for making this money. All the while, she will 'stand still in other people's tears', detached and cursing the day she ever expected more. At first, this movie seems to be Sono's version of A Snake in June, with a repressed housewife finding herself in a cold marriage and needing a passionate outlet. But then it goes in other directions. A simple job selling sausages in a supermarket turns out to be not so far from prostitution in the way society makes her sell her body and sexuality. But her deterioration into desperate degeneracy takes a long trip into tragedy, as she is pressured into increasingly detached and humiliating acts by society, and guided by a hardened prostitute-cum-philosopher who may as well be the dark side of her psyche. A surreal skinny man with exploding balloons of pink goo frequently appears to accompany and push her further on her trip to madness. Unfortunately, Sono felt this wasn't enough, and added a Se7en like gruesome killing, a gratuitously sleazy climax involving her husband finding out her secrets, and a tragic gut-punch of an ending with gratuitous scenes of shock value even though we already got the point. Most of the secondary story about a female detective on the case and her parallel character development was correctly cut out for the international cut so that the bulk of the movie is Izumi, but I can't hep but imagine what a more subtle or French director would have done with this material. Although, as the whore in the movie points out, words are not enough and she needs to show us in order to teach, the movie could have had more confidence with its stronger material, dropped the freak show, and come out a much stronger movie.

Although Sono's trademark of melodramatic excess and depression amidst teenagers is starting to become a slightly tiring trademark, there is still much of interest here, another of his movies that lives in a logic of its own. This is a manga spliced with then-current events of Japan's tsunami and nuclear catastrophe, the splice resulting in both some awkwardness, as well as symbolic interpretations of the movie about the survival of Japan and the clash of generations. Parents are so severely abusive and neglectful in this movie that they are surreal, building colorful guillotines for their children, or wishing their kids died in the tsunami so that they can collect insurance. Sumida is the sullen teenager who just wants an ordinary life despite platitudes by his teacher to become extraordinary, but his hateful father, neglectful mother and visits from the Yakuza for his father's debts, turn him to insanity and increasingly desperate acts. Fumi Nikaido is incredibly good as his stalker girl that loves him, who keeps trying to pull him out of the mud. A group of homeless refugees live next to him in the boat house, who worship him for an unknown reason as the future of Japan. The melodrama accumulates, pummelled into our senses with the overuse of Mozart's Requiem and Barber's Adagio, but the teenagers emerge as humans with pathos nevertheless.

Love Exposure  
Sion Sono does a 4 hour crazy Miike flick with some underlying depth. Try to follow this plot: A son of a priest turns to sin and increasingly sinful confessions in order to please his father's guilt after an affair with a crazy woman. He learns to become a panty-peek photography kung-fu master and falls for a man-hating girl while in a Lady Scorpion costume and makes her into his Virgin Mary. A penis-chopping abused woman working as a recruitment officer for a cult, manipulates their lives and messes them up even further as she spies on them and shoe-horns herself into their lives. Lots of melodrama, teenage-chic craziness, panty-fu, girls beating up men, religious nihilism and love-triangle drama ensue, with equal parts satirical catharsis and warped mania, including sympathy for the perverts and spiritual hard-ons. A one-of-a-kind, entertaining, but warped experience.

Prisoners of the Ghostland  
Possibly Sono's most blatantly metaphorical movie, so much so that it doesn't work as anything but metaphorical, except that it looks and feels like a pulp Mad-Max type of movie, which explains why most people didn't get it. You could interpret this whole movie as taking place within one man's psyche, or as a metaphor for society and its emblems. It is also a pairing with Nicolas Cage, a match made in hell, and I could already see them feeding off each other's methods of madness before the movie even started. This has Cage as a violent anti-hero in a post-apocalyptic world where a rich 'Governor' rules a bizarre Samurai-Western city with money and popularity. He sends Cage to fetch a truant girl from the dreaded Ghostland wherefrom no-one ever escapes, and straps a few smart-bombs on his leather suit to ensure that this happens. Except that Cage is basically fighting between his corrupted (the fallen samurai) and pure (Berenice) sides. He also has to fight his past sins and his out-of-control 'Psycho' side from his past, but no-one ever escapes this 'prison' and therefore remains in 'Ghostland', and time is literally stuck until he does. But the only way out is if the 'Good' Berenice really wakes up and gets going, and his Psycho self-detonates in a nuclear explosion. The Governor is obviously the big evil, controlling everything via fame and money, followed by a bizarre entourage of fangirls. Etc. Etc. It looks and feels like a surreal-metaphor-screenplay given the Sono treatment with his usual visual bag of tricks with outrageous costumes, sets and scores of over-the-top cartoonish characters. It's not brilliant or deep, but it is what it is, as long as it is taken in the way it was intended and enjoyed as entertaining insane surrealism mashed into a colorful pulp.

Strange Circus  
A surreal blend of Lynchian warped and repulsive characters with over-the-top Guignol grotesqueries and a narrative that schizophrenically melds realities before pulling a plot twist and turning them all inside out. Sion Sono of Suicide Circle fame masterfully crafts a nightmare with interesting cinematography but covers a pointlessly twisted story. In one reality, a girl is forced to watch her parents having sex through a cello-case before being raped by her father, her identity instantly confused with her mother's in heavy-handed Freudian fashion as her rape is braided together with her mother's lust, with guilt and jealousy messing everything up even further. In another reality, a freaky female author in a wheelchair is writing about these happenings while keeping a strange cello-case in her grotesquely decorated house. The schizophrenia is further enhanced by surreal nightmares, visions of a strange circus and a guillotine, walls covered in blood, and more. A unique, well-crafted but pointless movie that also could have used more subtlety and atmosphere.

Sono comes up with another surreal-provocative-artsy-horror-splatter hybrid involving frantic teens in supernatural danger. This is an insane, frantic, surreal movie where an interchangeable heroine finds herself running away from one hellish nightmare after another, waking up in alternate realities that soon turn into another violent hell while her friends are slaughtered around her over and over. There's a show-stopping splattery massacre by wind, teachers with machine guns, a nightmare wedding with a literal pig for a husband and much more. The constant frantic running becomes tiring after a while but then it stops for a dark and desperate ending that somehow explains everything and nothing at all, leaving your brain beaten to a pulp by a muddled sci-fi-horror feminist angsty-teenage provocation.

Tokyo Vampire Hotel  
See TV.

Absolutely bonkers Sono experiment that mixes together some documentary footage on various types of artists, and a wacky, hyper comedy about love that turns surreal. There's a Butoh dance lesson, footage of a fashion designer, a photographer who works hard in a photo shoot in a room full of naked girls, there's Sono's half-length movie and some behind-the-scenes footage of Sono filming the movie. If there are connections between these elements, they are only in the loosest sense imaginable. The movie itself is about a hyperactive girl that can't stop running both physically and emotionally, who decides to give her virginity to a cook in a restaurant even though he doesn't know her, so she drags the Hachiko statue of the loyal dog to the restaurant to convince him. But he is in over his head, as her non-stop running lifestyle and emotional roller coaster wears him down, runs him over, snags him in its wake and makes him obsessed, leading to scenes of frantic sex in odd public places, running in public with a huge hardon after a huge vagina, and a climax that just keeps getting more and more absurd.

Why Don't You Play in Hell?  
Looks like Sono has gone the way of Miike: High-speed output of pulp, over-the-top, brainless entertainment to the detriment of quality and thought. This one is a homage to teenage film-making passion and abandon, except that the energetic teenagers in question are so brainless, they're not likely to inspire anyone. Two parallel plot-lines intersect for the gory and wacky climax: One is about a group of youngsters constantly high on film-making that run around the streets filming anything that looks cool regardless of risk, converting a young street-fighter into a version of Bruce Lee, praying to the gods of film that they create one special film even if it kills them. The other plot-line is a Yakuza film for teenage film-stars, where rival gangs seem more obsessed over a pretty girl's film career who once acted in a toothpaste commercial as a kid, than in their business. Her family includes a ruthless and very violent father, and an even scarier mother who chops up assassins that invade her home, creating a literal bloodbath. You can imagine how these groups come together for an over-the-top violent climax of sword-fighting gangs with fountains of blood. Actually it feels like a parody of Kill Bill and I wouldn't be surprised if it was intended to make fun of Tarantino. Silly, but entertaining.


Tokyo Tribe  
Insane rap-musical gang-wars battle movie where Tokyo is divided into colorful and violent gangs 'The Warriors' style, except they all constantly rap and pose more than they fight, and they are all bonkers. The movie is mostly a series of encounters rather than involving some kind of plot, although eventually a plot does emerge where an unusually violent gang decides to take over all of Tokyo. I hate rap in general, but even by rap standards, this Japanese-rap is unusually braindead, untalented and listless, and it is the music that made this a very annoying experience for me, which may have otherwise been a somewhat entertaining Miike-style violent-youth flick with insane cartoonish elements. Several dozen actors do everything they can to chew the scenery and spit it out, while trying to pose and look cool, presumably as a parody, except that it quickly becomes rather silly and repetitive. There's a musclebound guy with penis-envy who walks around in a bikini and likes to chop people up with swords, a cute martial-arts princess who is a daughter of an insane high-priest, there's an all-girl gang that can kick anyone's ass which is par for the course, a bizarre beat-box-girl, a really annoying brat who keeps live people as his furniture, some cannibalism, a black superman, and a climactic battle, leading to a silly can't-we-all-get-along ending. Obnoxious and tedious bratty madness.

1999- by The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre Table of Contents