While much of Sion Sono’s early-aughts filmography is littered with cycles of violence and horror—films that plumb the depths of a darkness seemingly inherent in humankind—the ever-ubiquitous director’s finest of a whopping five 2015 theatrical releases pointedly proffers a rejection of its post-human world. With The Whispering Star, Sono opts for a lo-fi science-fiction yarn, a literal chamber drama defined by its textured images. He shoots in a high-contrast black and white, with stars, matches, and candles becoming light sources against an oppressive blackness
Sion Sono’s The Virgin Psychics is one strange movie, though not for the reasons his films are usually strange. True to its title, this high-concept comedy about a group of virgins who are bestowed fantastical abilities mixes the supernatural with frank illustrations of sex and desire, and while it features a number of crude and off-color gags, the tone is so lighthearted and inclusive that it ranks among the director’s least aggressive films. Like a screwball comedy director working in classic Hollywood, Sono understands that the key to a good sex joke isn’t shock value but showmanship. An array of deliberately exaggerated performances, a staple of Sono films in any genre or style, hammer home the story’s goofy and almost bashful nature, giving some of the more outsized and potentially bothersome gags—a buxom police medium sees the future of any person who stares at her breasts; a high school jock teleports into the girls’ locker room—an air of innocence. The dialogue and situations may be dirty, but actual sex and nudity is noticeably scarce. Instead, Sono derides the unique and unfair burdens of virginity while holding up the seemingly outdated importance Japanese society places on purity and virtue. Basically John Waters meets The Avengers, The Virgin Psychics gleefully mocks good taste while retaining a noble, almost conservative core.
Basically John Waters meets The Avengers.
A feature-length adaptation of Sono’s own 12-part TV miniseries, itself adapted from a manga written by Kiminori Wakasugi, the film begins with a lengthy sequence in which our nerdy protagonist, Yoshiro (Shota Sometani), flips through a mental rolodex of attractive women that he knows, in search of masturbation material—a nightly ritual that happens to coincide with a cosmic occurrence that gives him and a group of similarly emotionally unfulfilled virgins telepathic powers, enabling them to perform various feats, including versions of their own souped-up sex fantasies. Yoshiro and crew are also able to detect the desires of others, and so they find themselves attuned to every lustful thought that surrounds them. From there, Sono pivots on a number of narrative digressions and plot twists, the majority of which exist solely to stretch out a joke or gag of some kind; your ability to withstand the film may hinge on how much of the relentlessly silly and structurally anarchic plot you can handle. The central conflict is represented by the team’s attempt to thwart a group of “evil psychics” from wiping out humanity while using sex as a weapon. But the overall objective remains muddled—the heroes are either trying to push the world into an outright orgy or a puritanical state, it’s never clear which. The push and pull between sex as an aspiration and sex as a destructive tool cements the films ideas of virtue. Its most telling element involves Yoshiro’s attempts to find his true love, a girl he fell for before they were even born, when they were both in their mothers’ womb. It’s a romantic notion, and the fact that it exists in a film otherwise full of dripping-wet cleavage and relentless erection jokes is an example of paradox unique to Sono. He understands the appeal of both sides, but doesn’t fully align himself with either, choosing instead to mark the details of sex as it exists across all plains. These insights, coupled with the director’s usual stylistic irreverence and some surprisingly cathartic bits of humor, give The Virgin Psychics a thematic nuance that belies the brazen and patently stupid nature of its premise. In other words: textbook Sono.
This film has yet to be theatrically released in the U.S.
The jarring, discordant tones present in Tag are established within just the film’s first few images, which juxtapose an ominous helicopter shot of school buses and the dissonant swell of a cello against carefree scenes of the teenage girls that reside inside, as they engage in pillow fights. Almost immediately, gales of razor-sharp wind slice the tops off the girls’ school buses, leaving only a baffled, terrified, and blood-soaked Mitsuko (Reina Triendi) to look wide-eyed at her bisected peers. Only in the demented world of Sion Sono could this be as simple and straightforward as things get, but as Mitsuko flees more attacks, she finds herself right back in class surrounded by her alive, perplexed friends. From there, she continues to slip through various realities, emerging into moments of brief calm that are swiftly disrupted by intense violence, sending her into the next warped cycle of her own personal hell. Sometimes, the poor girl cannot even hold onto her identity: she becomes a bride on her wedding day in one scene, and a marathon runner in another. If circumstances change, however, the basic repetitions of carnage and desperate progression never do.
Tag explores the morality of final girl narratives and serves to call into question the mindsets of those who indulge in them.
At times, Tag resembles the video game mechanics of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil series. Like Anderson’s films, Sono’s finds the inherently cinematic properties of survival horror by taking the genre at face value. As such, the escalations of violence—teachers suddenly mowing down students with miniguns and grenade launchers, a deranged, perverted man with a squealing boar’s head–are played out in all their absurdity. But all of the manic camera movements eventually settle back on the anchoring point of Mitsuki’s face, as it absorbs more and more trauma. A final-act twist literalizes the subtext of Tag’s structure, but more importantly it also compounds the core contradiction underpinning a great deal of Sono’s work: that of his eager willingness to exploit his actresses (including a shot here of the deadly wind teasingly lifting up the main characters’ skirts) and his equally fervent enthusiasm for pointing out the way that Japanese society and pop culture treats women as objects. Taken with its subtle use of video game logic, Tag explores the morality of final girl narratives and serves to call into question the mindsets of those who indulge in them. Still, its most poignant moments do not concern the explorations of this theme but rather the fleeting moments of Mitsuko with her friends. These interactions, more so than Sono’s “have your cake and eat it too” approach to exploitation cinema, best illustrate the film’s ambitions.
This film has yet to be theatrically released in the U.S.
There’s a moment at the end of Love & Peace, an otherwise lumpy adult fairy tale, where the story threatens to come to a satisfyingly destructive head. At this point, Ryoichi (Hiroki Hasegawa), an office drone turned rock star, is confronted by Turtle, a magical kaiju-sized snapping turtle that helps Ryoichi realize his callow dreams of fame and fortune. Instead of stomping the shit out of Ryoichi, Turtle—later renamed “Love”—forgives Ryoichi for not only abandoning him, but also becoming a colossal
Shinjuku Swan, an adaptation of Ken Wakui’s manga series, finds director Sion Sono at his slickest, glossiest, and most impersonal. Set in the bustling titular section of Tokyo, specifically the Kabukicho red-light district, the film follows the travails of the bleached blond-maned Tatsuhiko (Go Ayano), who’s seen at the outset wandering Shinjuku with a rumbling stomach, a few coins in his pocket, and a massive chip on his shoulder. When Tatsuhiko gets in a fight with a bunch of guys who taunt him over his hair, he catches the attention of dapper gangster Mako (Yusuke Iseya), who’s impressed by Tatsuhiko’s fearlessness, even when he’s hopelessly outnumbered. Mako, captain of the Burst gang, feeds his charge, gets him a shiny new wardrobe, and hires him as a “scout,” tasked with soliciting young women on the street, enticing them into working at hostess clubs, massage parlors, and the myriad other adult establishments run by the gang. When Tatsuhiko expresses some moral qualms about what he’s luring these women into, Mako assures him that the girls are happy, well taken care of, and earn lots of money. Even when Tatsuhiko later witnesses women being beaten, hooked on drugs, and in one case driven to suicide, none of this bothers him enough to quit his job.
It will be quite interesting to see where Sono goes from here, now that the maverick has gone mainstream.
Much of this sprawling, 139-minute gangster saga concerns a rivalry between the Burst gang and the Harlem gang, who are in competition for control of Shinjuku. Harlem captain Hideyoshi (Takayuki Yamada) turns out to have a past connection to Tatsuhiko, though that reveal is anticlimactic and rather silly. Tatsuhiko’s initial outrage at being used as a pawn in the gang rivalry is likewise quickly done away with, another source of dramatic tension oddly muted. Shinjuku Swan ultimately ends up feeling like one very long set-up, presumably for the upcoming sequel, which Sono has already returned to helm. It’s also indicative of a new phase of Sono’s career, following his early experimental films and the later works—more commercially viable yet still authorially distinctive—with which he made his international reputation. Now Sono, after rolling out no less than six features in 2015, seems to be following in the prolific footsteps of fellow Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, taking on all manner of projects and even willing to work as a director-for-hire, as has been suggested was the case here. Consequently, the iconoclastic, subversive qualities of most of Sono’s previous work are largely absent, the rough edges sanded down in favor of an aesthetic that reflects the neon lights of the Kabukicho setting. That the film’s rote reiterations of over-familiar gangster movie tropes are built on the exploitation and sexual trafficking of women is something that’s not shied away from, yet it’s treated with a disturbingly matter-of-fact cavalierness. None of this stopped Shinjuku Swan from topping the box office in Japan last year, and the sequel is expected to do the same. It will be quite interesting to see where Sono goes from here, now that the maverick has gone mainstream.
This film has yet to be theatrically released in the U.S.
Though the presence of Shota Sometani, the tortured lead actor of Sion Sono’s Himizu—who’s even sporting the same gray hoodie he wore in that previous film—establishes a link between Sono’s more serious Fukushima Daiichi disaster-related films, Tokyo Tribe is resolutely in the maximalist vein of the director’s glorious movie-about-moviemaking Why Don’t You Play in Hell? If anything, Tokyo Tribe even manages to top the blissfully insane pleasures of its predecessor. Imagine a Warriors-influenced rap musical set in a dystopian Tokyo wherein various street gangs are under the frothing-at-the-mouth control of one Lord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi) and his two crazy sons. If the concept didn’t already sound eccentric, dig Sono’s execution: ambitious long takes build up this distinctive, futuristic world, peppered with many bits of random WTF invention (perhaps most memorably, a female servant that indulges in some off-the-hook beat-boxing), and a wall-to-wall energy level that courses through stretches where Sono’s inspiration seems in danger of flagging from sheer sensory overload. But while one can certainly derive plentiful enjoyment by simply basking in the nuttiness, there is also a sneaky intelligence laced throughout Tokyo Tribe. Note, for instance, the palpable weariness with which Shota Sometani’s MC delivers his gobs of rap exposition in the film’s opening moments—a strangely poignant reflection of the ennui that’s overtaken this junkyard future-Tokyo. And of course, Sono’s operatic intensity is still very much present—no more so than in a big blow-out finish, which climaxes in a final confrontation that not only reveals the villains’ ultimately petty motivations (it’s all about dick fear), but also yet again confirms Sono’s continued, guiding belief in the triumphant power of love.
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.
Sion Sono’s near-masterpiece Himizu takes place in the shadow of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and ensuing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, the largest such event since Chernobyl in 1986. The disaster left the surrounding area and national psyche ravaged, but if we’re to believe the film’s pessimistic view of Japanese society, Fukushima Daiichi wasn’t the only toxic thing about contemporary Japan. An unabashedly gloomy coming-of-age tale, Himizu turns a scornful eye toward a culture that promotes individualism while simultaneously hindering it, all while making bracing visual allusions to the widespread destruction of the Tohoku earthquake. Residing in a shoddy lakeside shack with his neglectful mother, 14-year-old Sumida (Shota Sometani) runs his family’s boat-rental business alongside a colorful group of squatters living nearby, in a makeshift shantytown. Scenes that feature Sumida and his chums kicking back and shooting the shit play like something out of Judd Apatow, affable in their relaxed air and congenial character interplay. These visits are often interrupted by Sumida’s alcoholic, sociopathic father, who returns to the shack only to take some money and knock his son around, disparaging him with a barrage of unbelievably cruel comments.
Abrupt shifts from tender comedy to jarring violence are found throughout Himizu, which dexterously balances an array of tones. The would-be meet cute between Sumida and the doting Keiko (Fumi Nikaido, the film’s best performance) starts out sweet before turning hostile. In Sono’s hands, quicksilver mood swings barely register, but nevertheless deliver a heavy blow. Violence is prevalent throughout Himizu, and becomes a byproduct of the narrative and characterizations; its presence is always alarming, even as it’s carried out by the characters in the most banal ways imaginable. As the story grows increasingly intense—one of Sumida’s cronies, the elderly and sweet-hearted Yoruno (Tetsu Watanabe), robs an affluent neo-Nazi to help pay a debt Sumida’s dad owes to the Yakuza, the ramifications of which send both characters into a nihilistic spiral—so too does the violence. Rather than offering up empty shock value, however, the brutality feels suitable, even logical, a disarmingly experiential ploy that implicates the audience in its acceptance of violent images.
Himizu turns a scornful eye toward a culture that promotes individualism while simultaneously hindering it.
Lest that make the film sound like some sort of Haneke-esque parlor game, Himizu’s concerns are ultimately sociocultural. Before everything goes haywire, Sumida desires a life of isolation, desperate to avoid the seemingly inevitable turmoil that accompanies intimate relationships and nuclear families. He openly rebukes notions of individualism and Japanese exceptionalism as posited by his gung-ho schoolteacher, who believes so thoroughly that each person is a “unique flower” that he demands the class repeat it, in unison, effectively negating the individualistic sentiment. Sumida’s response: “Ordinary is best.”
Except when it isn’t. Indeed, a sense of identity eludes Sumida and each of the characters here in one way or another. The final lines of a poem by Francois Villon are repeated throughout the film: “I know flies in milk. Specks against white. I know who labors and who loafs. I know pink cheeks from wan. I know death, who devours all. I know all save myself.” This refrain becomes a veritable mantra for Sono’s characters, and a sort of unofficial slogan for Japan itself, a nation which appears here to be in an alternate state of transition and turmoil. A general sense of menace presides over the second half of Himizu, in which knife-toting men seem to roam the land with impudence. After attempting to murder a busking guitar player, one of these presumed maniacs asks “Who am I?” And that’s the overriding question for a society whose violent tendencies and sense of uncertainty can be traced back, as the school teacher interestingly notes, to World War II. (Suddenly, the strange presence of the aforementioned Nazi sympathizer makes more sense.) In the wake of a national crisis, the question of “Who am I?” becomes more pressing than ever, and Sono’s response can be found in the reiterated shots of tsunami-inflicted rubble: a chance at redemption lying among the ruins.
An unfulfilled housewife drifts away from her mannered husband by selling her body whenever he’s away in Sion Sono’s Guilty of Romance—a film that seems in conversation with Luis Buñuel’s classic Belle de Jour. As with his forebear, the central transgression Sono is after is the wandering sex life of an ostensibly monogamous woman, a subject the director makes personal in both writing and casting. The kept woman is Izumi Kikuchi (Megumi Kagurazaka, Sono’s wife), who’s left to rigorous housekeeping each day. Her perpetually domineering husband makes his living as a commercial artist, much like Sono himself—and that commercial element is born out in the various genre influences coursing through this story outside Izumi’s home. A philandering police detective (Miki Mizuno) investigates a series of murders in Shibuya’s “love district” (cop thriller) while a supposedly liberated professor (Makoto Togashi) leads Izumi into a series of increasingly fetishistic sex-acts (softcore pornography). Izumi’s domestic life is rendered in still frames with patient editing rhythms, while the worlds of sex and violence waiting beyond are painted with garish colors reminiscent of ‘neon-noir,’ and the contrast illustrates everything that’s attractive about the latter.
An overture links the three worlds of Sono’s film with a single image: a series of body parts sewn onto mannequins, blood and viscera leaking out the seams, commerce and identities and carnality co-mingled.
Buñuel saw the world’s various states with the same eye, but Sono has a more schizophrenic manner of filmmaking: just as he’s communing with film history, so too are the various aesthetics he designates for individual sequences engaging in a conversation with one another. An overture links the three worlds of Sono’s film—the personal, the professional, and the sexual—with a single image: a series of body parts sewn onto mannequins, blood and viscera leaking out the seams, commerce and identities and carnality co-mingled. A later image furthers the same connection: Izumi stands nude in front of a mirror, practicing the script from her job at a grocery store, marketing her own body (“try some!”). These sequences do, of course, require Sono to inhabit and dramatize female sexual psychology, which has led to “accusations of misogyny” or suggestions that Guilty of Romance is a “study in degradation.” But such conclusions assume that Sono is an ideological filmmaker, and his spiderwebbed considerations of culture and psychology produce results far too complex and multifaceted for that label. What he’s filming is not just the role that Japanese culture might force onto its women, but also the roles they take up in response. More contrasts: between dolls and living beings, between employment and agency, between desire and satisfaction. Sono’s surrogate here is not the police investigator, but rather the criminal—the figure who sews contradictions together.
Despite its 2012 release, Bad Film captures a Sion Sono before he reached international acclaim; before his particular brand of otaku-influenced action films; and before his unabashed revelry in exhibitionism and voyeurism. It was filmed back in the mid-’90s, way before Sono’s breakout Suicide Club, and not finished until after his critical success Love Exposure, in 2011. This allowed a wizened Sono to collect fragments (roughly 150 hours) of his earlier activist years and turn them into either a diary of a particular time in Tokyo or a larger message about how he views his youth in retrospect. That time rift allows a nice selling point for a film that has been relatively underrepresented in Sono’s catalogue, but Bad Film‘s use of nostalgic reflection elevates it beyond mere curiosity.
Shooting primarily in his home of Tokyo’s Kōenji district (neighboring Shinjuku, which contains the yakuza-controlled Kabukichō district), Sono enlisted the 2,000 members of his performance art collective Tokyo GAGAGA to form a rough narrative about gang life, nativism, homophobia, and, most importantly, love. A Sinophobic Japanese gang meets and disparages a Chinese gang on the busy Chūō-Sōbu train line, leading to a Montague/Capulet-style turf war, complete with a lesbian Romeo and Juliet romance. But though Bad Film could easily stand a Shakespearean reading, Sono further complicates the narrative by having the gay members of each gang form their own cheaper black market for weapons, leading to a complete dissolution of their structure, with no one left to trust.
Bad Film‘s fictional elements could point to Masao Adachi’s and Koji Wakamatsu’s political films of the ’60s and ’70s, but its real power comes as a historical document of protest and revolution through art.
Of course, orgy-prone, violent gang narratives like Bad Film‘s fit rather comfortably for Sono, so what becomes most interesting here is just the act of trying to keep up with the damn thing. Shot on as many cheap Hi8 video recorders as GAGAGA could afford, the film jumps from camera to camera to camera (each used by actors in the film), as if already taking part in a Snapchat culture, recording every moment from every perspective. The film switches between a chaotic mélange of footage for the more violent scenes, settling down when it finds something beautiful (usually in the middle of a rape or death sequence). There’s even a ten minute-long shot that just documents a Japanese boss slapping every gang member in the room. Curiously, Sono never chooses to hide his cinematographers; it’s relatively easy to spot a few punks with cameras in each scene. This is likely due to the fact that it would be impossible to block out every cameraperson in a shot that includes hundreds of protesters (illegally shot as part of real GAGAGA demonstrations). Sono also explains this by literally interrupting the narrative and pointing out that these cameras are a way for the Japanese boss to masochistically document his group’s violence. That bit of dialogue finds an older Sono apologizing for the hasty young director, while still owning up to his politics, formal decisions, and collaborators.
The end credits of Bad Film only credit Tokyo GAGAGA. There could be nothing more fitting: This is a document of Sono’s collaborative nature and his years of being embedded in political strife and performance art culture. Its fictional elements point to Masao Adachi’s and Koji Wakamatsu’s political films of the ’60s and ’70s, but its real power comes as a historical document of protest and revolution through art—something that would be emulated in the west with the artistic output of the Occupy movement. Sono occupies the center of his film, donning sunglasses and a megaphone in the middle of Kōenji, shouting “GAGAGA!” at the top of his lungs. He didn’t just create these characters, their stories, the locations, and messages—he was there living them, and he was one of many.
This film has yet to be theatrically released in the U.S.
Only in a filmography as stylistically restless and formally anarchic as Sion Sono’s would a somber family drama like The Land of Hope be considered a radical departure. Made in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and ensuing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, Sono’s film is its own odd hybrid of Ozu-esque generational drama, speculative sci-fi, and searingly direct protest art. Set in a post-Fukushima Japan, in a fictional rural province called Nagashima (Sono’s invented portmanteau of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Fukushima, all parts of Japan catastrophically affected by radiation), The Land of Hope focuses on two neighboring farm families who are literally driven apart when a Tokoku-like earthquake causes a meltdown at a nearby Fukushima-like plant. Government officials in hazard suits build a barrier fence directly across the property of the Onos’ dairy farm, offering only the information that everything on the other side of the fence and within 20km of the plant must be evacuated. The neighbors are taken to a makeshift shelter filled with hundreds of local residents, but the stoic patriarch Yasuhiko (Isao Natsuyagi, in one of his final performances) refuses to heed warnings that his side of the fence may be just as unsafe. He and his dementia-stricken wife Chieko (Naoko Otani, heartbreaking) resolve to stay in their home while their son, Yoichi (Jun Murakami), and his young wife Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) flee to a nearby city. Izumi soon discovers she’s pregnant and obsesses over the possible effects of radiation exposure, keeping her father-in-law’s Chernobyl-era Geiger counter on hand, insulating their new bedroom with plastic and enclosing herself in a head-to-toe hazard suit before setting foot outside. Sono evokes her growing paranoia through his sound design: the insistent pinging of the Geiger counter bounces off of two submerged heartbeats, as Izumi goes warily through her day.
Sono’s approach here is much more low-key and naturalistic than in the two films he made prior to this one—the epic saga of perversity Love Exposure and the anguished, wayward-youth manga adaptation Himizu—but he has rarely been so deeply attuned to the enduring struggles in Japanese society between young and old, history and memory, tradition and progress. Throughout The Land of Hope, Sono returns to an image of a stake being pounded into the ground—the building of the barrier across the Ono property. When Yoichi returns home to try and convince his parents to leave Nagashima for a safer area, his father elaborates on the significance of this: “It’s like we had a stake put through us…this time the stake is radiation. In a man’s life, it’ll just keep on happening.” In the next cut, a line of stakes has been driven across the room, through the table that separates Yoichi from his parents. Later, Sono returns to this image while Yoichi lays in bed thinking, and this time the figures of Yoichi and his parents all vanish, while only the room and the stakes remain. The image echoes an earlier sequence of wide shots capturing the evacuated Nagashima, vacant fields, and roads bisected by the barrier fence, and provides a deeply resonant vision of the way that the divisions caused by such traumas, whether natural or manmade or both, endure beyond the lives of those affected.
Sono pointedly suggests that the Japanese government and media insist that people move on from these disasters as a means of covering for their own culpability
Sono pointedly suggests that the Japanese government and media insist that people move on from these disasters as a means of covering for their own culpability (indeed, in the case of the real Fukushima incident, the Prime Minister admitted in 2013 that the government had attempted to cover up the cause of the meltdown, revealed to be the poor construction and maintenance of the Daiichi plant.) On the Ono family’s TV, cheery announcers encourage this mass forgetting with messages such as “Let’s eat, produce, and buy!” and “Many sad things have happened in Nagashima lately. But I want to forget it and see folks smile!” Near the end of The Land of Hope, Yoichi asks Izumi’s obstetrician to level with him about the real risk of radiation for their unborn child. He is both direct (showing Yoichi a graph, he flatly says that the level of radiation is higher than the government and media have reported) and still obfuscating about the extent and source of the cover-up (“It’s not the TV people who lie, it’s the physicians. The physicians on TV.”). His clearest statement casts a long shadow over the whole film: “There is no place you can hide.”
So where, then, lives the hope promised by this film’s title? Ono’s greatest concern seems not to be his own well-being or that of his wife, but the assurance that his son’s family, and his unborn grandchild, will be safe. He is a proud, traditional man looking out for his legacy. The central image in The Land of Hope is a tree planted in the Onos’ backyard, surrounded by a small garden of bright colorful flowers. Yasuhiko and Chieko tend to it throughout, even as everyone else is evacuated and the foreboding barrier fence looms. When two representatives of the nuclear energy company visit to encourage Yasuhiko to leave before the government forces him off his property, he explains the significance of the tree: Planted when he and Chieko were married, it is now “a mark that proves our existence…valued over the family grave.” He points to two much larger trees that stand just on the other, condemned side of the fence, planted by his grandfather and his father. “Will I ever be able to go to these trees? Has radiation killed them?” Sono cuts to Chieko standing against their own tree, framed in such a way that both she and the tree appear taller than the fence, and the neighboring houses, emphasizing her bond with it. Throughout The Land of Hope, people are displaced, forcibly evacuated, wandering through towns devastated by disaster (shot amidst the wreckage of the real Fukushima), longing to return home. Yasuhiko Ono’s final sacrificial gesture is both a surrender to death but also a final refusal to die anywhere else. He and Chieko sink behind the flowers of their family garden, a gunshot rings out, the deep well of sorrow beneath this film ignites, and the tree bursts into flames.
This film has yet to be theatrically released in the U.S.
Sion Sono’s Love Exposure is an epic, four-hour romantic comedy about terrible fathers, upskirt photography, Catholicism, and the meaning of love. Where Sono’s Bicycle Sighs could be categorized as a fairly typical minimalist art film, and his Suicide Club firmly entrenched itself in the millennial wave of Japanese horror, Love Exposure is much less easy to peg—a wholly original pop construct springing forth from its auteur’s cracked heart. If the film has a stylistic precursor at all, it’s the freewheeling exuberance of ’70s exploitation cinema: the camera rushes in and out of handheld frames, through mass karate fights and arterial sprays, and a lurid glee comes from moviemaking’s simulacra of violence.
Uneasily backdropping all the slashed throats and broken members, however, is a fundamentally sweet story of love between highly damaged youths, and of a generation inventing romance on its own terms in the wake of a patriarchal control that, with its selfishness and cruelty, has drained life of meaning. The film’s four-hour plot has too many twists and turns to coherently recount, but it revolves around Yu (Takahiro Nishijima), a young Catholic whose preacher father drives him into, first, a gang, and then, the secret art of taking panty pictures. Yu loves Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), who leaves her abusive father to live with Kaori (Makiko Watanabe), the woman Yu’s father loves. Yoko loves Miss Scorpion, who she doesn’t know is actually Yu in drag. Skulking in the margins is Koike (Sakura Andô), another victim of an abusive father–and also a murderous drug dealer who runs a cult based on Christianity, but with a lot more kidnapping—who maybe loves Yu.
A fundamentally sweet story of love between highly damaged youths, and of a generation inventing romance on its own terms in the wake of patriarchal control.
Love Exposure‘s off-beat construction—hour-long first chapter, two half-hour ones, a 90-minute fourth chapter, and a long epilogue—mirrors its winding narrative, and its unexpected rhythms. Its tone resembles Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool: Sono creates a world ever so slightly out of step from our own, but one that somehow seems recognizable nonetheless. Love Exposure brings out the funkiness in Bolero and features the Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, allowing both pieces to linger in the film’s soundtrack, while panty photos are taken with kung fu acrobatics, propelling the narrative for longer than any sane human would think advisable. In this world, the Catholic Church is corrupt, ineffective, and cruel, while its rival, Zero Church, brainwashes its victims into a white-walled fantasy of domestic happiness. But the purest expression of meaning is an angry, anguished recitation of Corinthians 13. In that famous passage is the core of romance our heroes carve out for themselves: after burning down every institution that corrupts and obscures, the clanging cymbals of selfish desire, after exposing all their own deceptions and disguises and imperfections, two hands clasp with faith, hope and love.