Two years ago, we published Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake, an exhaustive review retrospective of nearly every feature film that Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono had directed to date. Tokyo Vampire Hotel is one of Sono’s latest releases — an eight-episode series made available for streaming in the U.S. on Amazon Prime. Over the next several weeks, we’re diverging from our usual program of film and music coverage to take a closer look at this “mini-series,” in several installments.
Sion Sono’s Tokyo Vampire Hotel, is a work that feels divided upon itself. It is at once a snotty and vulgar explosion of adolescent imagination and a serious, deeply felt, weirdly moving philosophical rumination. A dichotomous relationship between high and low is evidenced throughout Sono’s body of work, which includes films fully immersed in the blood-and-guts-and-SFX genre (Tokyo Tribe, Love & Peace) and aesthetically tricked-out art films (The Whispering Star, The Land of Hope). But Tokyo Vampire Hotel is somewhat unique in that it offers the opportunity to witness the whole gamut of Sono’s sensibility: Over a nearly six-hour runtime, the series morphs from a vicious vampire apocalypse satire into a more abstract genre film, deploying genre elements as dense philosophical metaphor.
It’s in the later episodes of Tokyo Vampire Hotel where things get really good, but Sono’s penchant for wicked humor, married to copious gore, as well as the director’s childlike fascination with the mechanical possibilities of studio filmmaking, is evident right from this series’ first scenes. After an expository introduction into a universe defined by the opposing Dracula and Corvin vampire clans, Episode 1 introduces Manami (Ami Tomite, also the lead in Sono’s previous film, Antiporno), on the eve of her 22nd birthday, and bears witnesses to a massacre carried out by a gun-toting member of the Dracula clan. (The assassin looks like she just came from a cosplay convention, though that’s an impression that applies to just about every vampire in this series.) Sono wastes no time getting his usual violence on screen, as everyone in the bar/restaurant where Manami has chosen to host her party is brutally murdered in sundry inventive ways. But the copious fake blood flying around the room comes to feel a bit like a wink to the audience — a provocation with a hint of irony. Memorable bits include the assassin smashing a hole in the wall with somebody else’s head, revealing a subway train going by outside; a woman getting poked to death in the face by a fork, which goes on so long that the action loses its horror and becomes disturbingly robotic; and the sudden dispatching of the assassin herself, as the Corvin clan moves in to lay their claim to the territory.
It’s in the later episodes of Tokyo Vampire Hotel where things get really good, but Sono’s penchant for wicked humor, married to copious gore, as well as the director’s childlike fascination with the mechanical possibilities of studio filmmaking, is evident right from this series’ first scenes.
Why territory matters here isn’t really established until later, after we’ve met the avatars of the two opposing vampire clans: K (Kaho), for Dracula, and Yamada (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), for Corvin. These two figures pull Manami into the world of the vampires — a world in which only misfortune befalls her. First, Manami discovers that her erstwhile boyfriend is actually a Corvin vampire (and has to watch as K quickly kills him); then, she’s kidnapped, re-kidnapped, and tossed back and forth between K and Yamada with an absurd frequency that would drive anyone insane. Manami spends most of Episode 1 (and much of the entire series, in fact) frantically screaming her head off — a behavioral choice that, finally, scans as an expression of a kind of emotional realism. Out of desperation, Manami takes Yamada’s hand and is whisked off to the Hotel Requiem, which turns out to actually be the fleshy embodiment of an undead vampire, known as the “Empress.” And it’s within this place (or within this being) where much of Tokyo Vampire Hotel then plays out.
In Episode 2, it’s revealed that Manami is one of three girls who was infused with vampire blood at birth by the Dracula clan, though she’s the only one who lived to see adulthood. Of the other two girls, one stabbed herself to death, and the other died suddenly after the truth of her existence was revealed to her. This latter girl is the focus of Episode 2, and her narrative affords Sono the chance to pitch something of a curveball, since it basically proceeds as a realistic family drama, following the girl from childhood through to her adolescence. Sono inverts the horror-movie idea of the terrifying, otherworldly child, and finds black humor in the idea that the girl’s parents would only be together for the money offered to them by the Dracula clan. Sono observes the parents’ terror regarding the sweet girl in their house, and throws in some observations about how judgmental parents judge each other. (One gets the sense that, if he wanted to, Sono could craft quite a unique shomingeki, though it’s hard to imagine him taking on such a project without license to rough it up a little.) If Episode 2 of Tokyo Vampire Hotel often seems in danger of lapsing into parody, even self-parody (a danger somehow less prevalent in the series’ bonkers pilot), Sono always rights the ship, maintaining a sense of passionate empathy for even a minor character, all the way to her grisly end.
You can currently stream Sion Sono’s Tokyo Vampire Hotel series on Amazon Prime.