There’s a moment late in Why Don’t You Play in Hell? that neatly sums up Sion Sono’s distinctive vision. A boy crawls through a blood-soaked room to be next to the girl he loves, a girl he’s only just met — and there’s a sword running through his head as he does this, transforming him into a sort of grotesque unicorn. As in many of Sono’s best films, the extravagant violence here is motivated by grandiose emotions. And while it makes loud proclamations about the importance of cinema—this is a movie about moviemaking—the sheen of 35mm nostalgia is but a device to carry characters to the sorts of bold, often blood-soaked emotional climaxes that Sono has made his stock-in-trade. After all, while the aforementioned scene takes place on a film set, the violence is as real as the stakes which are the result of real interpersonal tension, rather than the creation of a wild young director. That director, Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa), leads a crew of filmmakers dubbed “The Fuck Bombers,” whose dreams of 35mm glory are grounded by the reality of inexpensive DV productions. When gangster Muto’s (Jun Kunimura) film production—a gift for his wife on her return from prison—is interrupted by his daughter, Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaidou), running away from set, he must turn to Hirata, who comes up with a plan to film the gang’s attack on their rivals, led by the ridiculous Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi).
Sono’s head isn’t stuck in the past; his film thrives on fresh, youthful energy and ultimately warns against the fog of nostalgia.
The resulting climax plays like Kill Bill’s Crazy 88s sequence on amphetamines, complete with a combatant in Bruce Lee’s yellow jumpsuit. The star of this climax is Mitsuko, who slices through waves of Yakuza, sometimes leaving rainbows in her wake, producing some of the most indelible images in all of Sono’s filmography. As in Himizu, Fumi Nikaido proves herself to be an ideal actress for Sono, capable of pulling off every tonal shift the director employs with abandon and communicating emotional depths in moments of deranged violence—her best scene finds her forcing a kiss on an unfaithful boyfriend with a shard of glass on her tongue. Mitsuko is running from her family, and the gang rivalry in play has a long history—Why Don’t You Play In Hell? has a clear affection for the past, right down to Ikegami’s effort to restructure his gang to mimic the clans of feudal Japan, leading to their newfound penchant for kimono-wearing. The Fuck Bombers’ own warmth towards the past comes both from a love of celluloid and a fear of aging out of their aspirations. With everyone out to recapture something of a past glory, cinematic nostalgia, as prominent as it is, is ultimately just another remembered thing. Despite this, Sono’s head isn’t stuck in the past; his film thrives on fresh, youthful energy and ultimately warns against the fog of nostalgia—which leads every character who succumbs to it to their inevitable doom. You can play your film in hell, but it will cost you your life.