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.
Read our write-up of Tokyo Vampire Hotel: Episodes 1 & 2 here.
From Episode 3 onwards, as the plot proper of Tokyo Vampire Hotel unfurls, the various interests that motivate the series threaten to stretch it too far. By virtue of the interest that Sion Sono takes in each and every character (including the sideshow baddies), Tokyo Vampire Hotel is unquestionably an ensemble drama. But the screenplay is also structured in a way that’s similar to Young Adult literature, with a central identification figure (Manami) struggling throughout the series against an incomprehensible dystopia (the eponymous hotel). Yet despite being a focal point of a lot of the story’s emotions, Manami is mostly powerless when it comes to actually determining her own fate, which makes full-bodied identification with her difficult. Of much more consequence in the middle portion of the series (Episodes 3 through Episode 7) is the clash between K and Yamada, representatives of the current generations of the Corvin and Dracula vampire clans, respectively, who hash out a political dispute through bloody warfare. Manami is exists mainly as the prime bargaining chip, or power valve.
If this warfare-centric middle section is a little dissatisfying, that’s mainly because our identification with Manami is incomplete; we have no real rooting interest in the conflict. One could say that Sono is almost too even-handed in terms of the screen time he afford the two factions. While one ought to be more on K’s side — as she’s Team Rescue Manami, whereas Yamada is Team Creepy Sex Hotel Enslaving Humans for Blood Supply — its Yamada that provides this series with its most expressive moments: his feud with his Prime Minister father, his love for Elisabeth (Megumi Kagurazaka), and his rebellion against the hotel hierarchy, which ends beautifully (and bloodily) in a severed-head moment ripped straight from Stendhal. By contrast, K’s mission seems a bit stolid and duty-bound, with only her moments of genuine care for Manami standing out from a rather cut-and-paste background relationship to the leader of the Dracula clan. It would seem that Sono stretched himself a bit thin: With the sociological critique of the Yamada thread on one hand, and the satire of cult psychology of the K thread on the other, the trajectory of Manami’s coming-of-age story gets a bit muddled.
Sono goes for rabble-rousing revolution, leading his doomed insurgents toward the inevitable bloodbath of Episode 7, without really giving them a fighting chance.
Still, one has to appreciate how Sono dives headlong into the desperation of adolescence in his depiction of Manami: Her growing vampirism is tied to her 22nd birthday, and the monstrousness that overtakes her is repeatedly aligned with a hypertrophic sensuality, signaled via the stylistic hallmarks of not-even-tasteful pornography, all heaving breasts and locomotive thrusting, accompanied by brief flashes of sadomasochism. Not an ounce of teen romance sentimentality clouds Sono’s vision of young adulthood as a brutal destruction of the ego, a devastating and irrevocable phase through which a monster finally emerges from within one’s own skin. And the considerable interest of that material, as well as K and Yamada’s narratives, makes it all the more frustrating that Tokyo Vampire Hotel’s middle episodes get so bogged-down in an escape plot hatched by the humans caught in the hotel. Engagement with these individuals is severely limited since their opportunities for escape are thrown like bones, rather than organically thought-through. Oddly enough, one can imagine Sono doing right by this sort of genre exercise: There’s a short scene of K swapping out the surveillance camera in Manami’s room which hints at a latent, sadly unfulfilled heist subplot. But instead, Sono goes for rabble-rousing revolution, leading his doomed insurgents toward the inevitable bloodbath of Episode 7, without really giving them a fighting chance.
You can currently stream Sion Sono’s Tokyo Vampire Hotel series on Amazon Prime.