Retrospective Film

by Daniel Gorman Retrospective Film

Cold Fish | Sion Sono

August 19, 2016
Cold Fish

One task of the critic is to place a film within the context of its artist’s entire body of work, looking for recurring themes, motifs, obsessions, etc. But the sheer breadth of Sion Sono’s filmography—coupled with those films’ sporadic (at best) distribution—leaves the average viewer with a perhaps skewed version of the director’s intentions. For better or worse, much like Takashi Miike, Sono is as a result known for his over-the-top violence and digressions into outright absurdity, sometimes coupled with extremely long running times. In a way, then, Cold Fish (which runs two hours and change—comparatively brief next to Love Exposure‘s four) provides an excellent entry point. Sono’s story of a serial killer ingratiating himself with a ‘typical’ contemporary family (i.e. deeply dysfunctional) certainly bears the stamp of Shohei Immamura (cf. Vengeance Is Mine) and Nagisa Oshima (of whom Sono is on record as being a fan). And of course the film involves a serial killer, a genre that knows no national boundaries, as well as an ‘everyman’ who gets caught up in the influence of forces he can’t control.

Sono might appear to shoot quick and loose, frequently going handheld and following action in close-up. But he’s also capable of precise formal control, a certain kind of subtlety even. The beginning of Cold Fish is shot almost like a horror film, all cramped spaces and quick, jagged cuts alternating between mostly silent interiors and a torrential downpour outside of the unhappy home—Sono is telling us this family is broken before anyone even speaks a word. The narrative ignites when a young girl, Mitsuk0 (Hikari Kajiwara), is caught stealing at a department store. Nobuyuki (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) and Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka, Sono’s then-girlfriend, now wife) rush to the store to collect their thieving daughter, but the soon-revealed-to-be-insane Yukio (Denden) intervenes on their behalf, offering Mitsuko a job in his tropical fish store as a form of rehabilitation. It’s gradually revealed that Yukio wants Nobuyuki to help him defraud investors in an expensive tropical fish selling scheme, which quickly devolves into Nobuyuki becoming an accessory to murder. In due course, Yukio’s seemingly demure wife will be revealed as an equal and willing partner in her husband’s killing; Yukio will violate Nobuyiki’s wife; and Mitsuko will turn against her family to embrace her new job, and her boss.

Sono is clearly interested in a kind of toxic masculinity—patriarchy run amok. But he’s also savvy enough to suggest why such fantasies of violent control might be attractive to an emasculated nebbish.

Sono shoots Yukio’s bigger, brighter tropical fish store with an elegant, slow tracking shot, emphasizing the symmetry of the tanks that line the aisles. Conversely, Nobuyuki’s own shop is cramped, the camera moving between figures who can barely navigate the spaces between the tanks and the claustrophobic living quarters at the back of the shop. Sono also shoots several long conversation scenes as unbroken takes, darting back and forth between Nobuyuki and Yukio, and changing the framing to suggest simultaneously a camaraderie between the two men but also Yukio’s clear dominance. Ultimately, Cold Fish‘s narrative reveals itself as a means to an apocalyptic bloodbath: The last thirty minutes or so are a cacophony of sex, rape and violent dismemberment, guts and assorted viscera literally splayed across the screen. Sono is clearly interested in a kind of toxic masculinity—patriarchy run amok. But he’s also savvy enough to suggest why such fantasies of violent control might be attractive to an emasculated nebbish like Nobuyuki. In this film, everyone is both victim and predator.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by Carson Lund Retrospective Film

Be Sure to Share | Sion Sono

August 19, 2016
Be Sure to Share

An anomalous tearjerker from Sion Sono couched between some of the director’s most outré genre eruptions, Be Sure to Share channels Sono’s own grief over the loss of his father into a modest tale of filial piety renewed against the backdrop of terminal cancer. Shiro (Akira), who’s happily employed in his late twenties and on the cusp of engagement to his mild-mannered girlfriend, Yoko (Ayumi Itô), has his world rocked when his father Tetsuji (Eiji Okada) unexpectedly keels over and is rushed to the emergency room. When the diagnosis consigns Tetsuji to the hospital bed for what will likely be a permanent stay, Shiro, recognizing that his relationship with his dad extends scarcely beyond old-fashioned tough love, endeavors to deepen their connection before it’s too late. The premise is a melodramatic softball right over the middle of the plate, the kind of idea that Hollywood would hypothetically poach and transform into two hours of sad-macho life lessons handed down from an award-sniffing veteran actor to a handsome newcomer. And in certain respects, Sono makes that film: the title refers to a didactic sentiment sprinkled into the script three times in model screenwriting-manual fashion, the belatedly burgeoning father-son bond is fortified by not one but two props symbolizing their camaraderie, and it’s all accompanied by a heart-tugging score of strummed major chords. In other ways, however, Be Sure to Share is too emotionally naked, assembled as it is from the raw material of Sono’s own anguish, and too daring in its plunge into the depths of that anguish to scan as a schmaltzy copout, let alone a bankable commodity.

Channels Sono’s own grief over the loss of his father into a modest tale of filial piety renewed against the backdrop of terminal cancer.

Snags in the straightforward plot arise when Shiro receives personal news that instantly, as a script expert might say, “raises the stakes.” This new information, which Shiro strategically elects to keep to himself, magnifies the sense of urgency around his daily visits to his father’s bedside. And when, in one of Sono’s most experimental maneuvers, early scenes of seemingly innocuous conversation recur later in the film, they’re charged with new meaning in light of the knowledge we share with the protagonist. Suddenly, Shiro’s stammering and false starts register less as personality quirks than as the indications of an overwhelming inner turmoil. Further augmenting this turmoil are Shiro’s recurring daydreams of his father as a hard-ass high school soccer coach, memories that play like PTSD nerve shocks with their pumped-up saturation and space-warping camera angles. What’s especially peculiar about these scenes, aside from their general incongruousness against the rest of the film’s sedate naturalism, is that they’re lodged right into the middle of more openly sentimental montages, so that Tetsuji’s drill-sergeant hollering resounds over the same wistful acoustic guitar that scores tender exchanges between Shiro and Yoko. Sono’s point is that these respective emotional extremes are not isolated poles to be reconciled but rather inextricable dualities in the formation of identity and family ties. When Tetsuji exclaims that Shiro has “become a man,” is it a complement to receive with resentment or pride? Be Sure to Share’s conflicted portrait of machismo humbled before mortality is graced with a climactic act of desperation from Shiro, as moving as it is uncomfortable in expressing the irrationality of love, that leaves this question in a state of agonizing irresolution.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by Veronika Ferdman Retrospective Film

Exte: Hair Extensions | Sion Sono

August 18, 2016

When the director of a film is also its screenwriter it’s relatively safe to assume that what you’re watching—outside interference notwithstanding—is a story that they actually wanted to tell. It then becomes endlessly amusing to consider what it must be like to wake up every day as the man who decided to make a film about killer hair extensions. (Pretty wonderful, probably.) Exte: Hair Extensions opens with two security guards patrolling a shipyard at night, casually talking about lottery tickets and girlfriend problems, and coming upon a particularly foul-smelling shipping container containing a black mass of human hair and a one-eyed female corpse. It’s clear from the outset that the level of gravitas Sono’s going for is not to approach season two of The Wire, nor any kind of rigorous police procedural. Instead, finding an amiable home for his bugfuckery in the horror genre, Exte vacillates between all manner of weirdness that cannot—even while dealing with human trafficking, organ harvesting, and child abuse—maintain (or display any desire of maintaining) any sort of framework of tonal seriousness. When Yamazaki (Ren Osugi), a fantastically creepy hair fetishizing mortician, steals the body of the woman on the docks and takes it home, he ascends to pitches of ecstasy, as hair continues to grow from the body in shocking abundance, from limbs and wounds. Yamazaki harvests the hair and gives it to salons to use as hair extensions. Those who wear the extensions or come into contact with them see visions of the death of the woman from which the hair sprouts.

There is a symbiotic cruelty between those who harvest and profit off the abysmally sourced hair and the in turn unknowing and uncaring women who wear these extensions, never wondering about their point of origin.

These glimpses are truly gruesome: at the hands of masked men, the woman’s head is shaved and she is presumably tortured, plucked of an eye, and robbed of organs. Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, Exte flirts with family drama. Yuko (Chiaki Kuriyama), an ebulliently earnest aspiring hairstylist (whose hair Yamazaki becomes obsessed with), is forced to take care of her niece, Mami (Miku Sato), after Mami’s abusive mother dumps her at Yuko’s apartment. Exte attempts to balance this drama with its outward ridiculousness, and also casually function as a side-long social commentary. There is a symbiotic cruelty between those who harvest and profit off the abysmally sourced hair and the in turn unknowing and uncaring women who wear these extensions, never wondering about their point of origin. Yet, proposing this as the primary reading of the film would be to tether it to an agenda that Sono is only vaguely interested in. It’s clear that more than being shocking or allegorical, the scenes of hair growing out of the eyeballs and fingertips of the extensions’ victims are meant to be and are weirdly funny. And perhaps the most amusing level on which the film plays is as an inside J-horror joke about the now iconographic image of a vengeful female ghost who has a tangle of black tresses (cf. Ringu, Ju-On) that seems almost inseparable from and the visual foundation for her creepiness.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by Chris Mello Retrospective Film

Noriko’s Dinner Table | Sion Sono

August 17, 2016
Noriko's Dinner Table

Though it sports a few grisly images of its own, Noriko’s Dinner Table borrows most of its bloodshed from its companion film, Suicide Club. Sono repurposes the opening of his breakthrough—during which 54 high school students jump in front of an oncoming train—several times here, first for context and later for impact. But rather than repeat himself, Sono fashions Noriko’s Dinner Table as a melodrama about the dissolution of family and the creation of oneself in the internet era. Its most harrowing moment finds a family on the verge of reunion as two runaway sisters—their ‘true’ selves lost to a cycle of performative self-discovery—enter a replica of their childhood home, while their father hides in a wardrobe, waiting to surprise his daughters and reunite his family after a two year absence. Were this film by another filmmaker, this potential reunion might be a source of joy for members of the family. Instead, Sono’s vision of a reunion is a horror movie scenario in which the monster in the closet threatens to destroy the lives the girls have found for themselves and force them back into the roles they were born into.

While it is a companion filmtaking place before, during and after the events of Suicide ClubNoriko’s Dinner Table is only tangentially interested in explaining its predecessor’s mystery, instead using a rash of suicides to craft its own metaphor about the roles we play in relation to each other. “If some people are lions, others must be rabbits. Some must die for the rest to truly live,” a representative of the Suicide Club tells us, revealing that most members of the club don’t kill themselves because it is not their role. Out of this comes the story of sisters Noriko (Kazue Fukiishi) and Yuka (Yuriko Yoshitaka), who meet a girl from the internet, Kumiko (Tsunami), who may or may not be the leader of the Suicide Club. All we know for certain is that Kumiko’s past is a fabrication (she claims to have been born in a locker) and that she runs a family rental business through which lonely people can purchase the illusion for however long they can afford it. Noriko and Yuka join Kumiko’s business while their father, Tetsuzo (Ken Mitsuishi), frantically searches for answers about the club he believes his daughters are involved with.

Sono’s companion film to his Suicide Club crafts a metaphor about the roles every human plays in relation to one another.

But by the time Tetsuzo finds them, Noriko and Yuka have taken on new personalities entirely—they’ve found themselves through performing as other people. Both are unrecognizable as the girls that they once were, not only to their father but to themselves; the identities they first created as online avatars have extended outside of virtual space. Every major character in Noriko’s Dinner Table is given an internal monologue to emphasize the nature of both a perceived self and the self they project to others. Form further complements theme as Sono so often employs sustained takes to focus on the heightened performances of his subjects who, as per his film’s context, always seem on the verge of suicide. In the end, we are presented with the choice to either fall back into performing our given roles or go out in search of new ones. And in a film without easy answers, Sono ultimately doesn’t seem to prefer either.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

Drew Hunt Retrospective Film

Strange Circus | Sion Sono

August 17, 2016
Strange Circus2

Pull any Sion Sono movie off the shelf and chances are somebody somewhere has called it his “most extreme.” With a filmography as pervasively perverse and profane as Sono’s, one could place such a distinction on almost any title and probably be correct in saying so. But there’s something uniquely twisted about the feverish Strange Circus, Sono’s 2005 exercise in ero-guro, a Japanese art style that trades in sexual depravity and violence. The word itself is a wasei-eigo, a Japanese combination of abbreviated English words: ero from “erotic” and “guro” from grotesque. Similarly, Strange Circus is a collision, a wild blend of the utterly obscene and the undeniably beautiful. Incest, rape, pedophilia, and self-mutilation are just a few of the taboo bases it covers, while at the same time exploring the very specific ideas of emotional transference and psychological displacement, innately spiritual procedures whose effects occasionally, in the most extreme of cases—there’s that phrase again—result in physical transformation. True to form, Sono’s depiction of this transformation is an act of bloodletting full of gore and cruelty; there’s also poetic use of Debussy and Franz Liszt, as well as some of the most elegant direction we’ve yet seen from the filmmaker. But that’s the thing with Sono: His art trumps his impulses.

Wanders from one nightmare to the next, taking daring leaps between time and space.

“When dad first molested me, that was the beginning of the end.” So begins the story of 12-year-old Mitsuko (Mai Takahashi), whose incestuous father (Hiroshi Ohguchi) dominates her life. In addition to being her guardian and abuser, he’s also the principal of her school, and it’s in his office where Mitsuko’s first molested. He modifies a cello case by drilling a peephole near the top and locks his daughter inside, where she’s forced to watch him have rough sex with her mother (Masumi Miyazaki), who is then placed in the cello herself and made to watch as her husband rapes their daughter. This decidedly disturbing scenario sets the stage for a personal saga that finds Mitsuko questioning the very idea of herself. “Mom and I looked exactly alike. I was her, and she was me,” she says, claiming that the first time she sees her parents have sex, it’s as if she’s having sex, too. Her mental lines are blurred, reflected in Sono’s hallucinatory treatment of reality. The movie wanders from one nightmare to the next, taking daring leaps between time and space while exploring Mitsuko’s fractured psyche. The film even seems to jump to another universe altogether: An erotic-fiction writer (Miyazaki) is writing a new novel seemingly based on Mitsuko’s life. Her murky past, as well as the identity of her assistant (Isseu Ishida), give the film the closest thing it has to a conventional plot line, but resolution is ever scarce. Strange Circus posits violence; quickly and thoroughly abstracts it; then forces it back into a space that seems neither real nor fake, both aggressively alive and slowly decaying. Sono shows us the unique ways violence and abuse transform life into myth, and how the whole thing feels, strangely, like a circus.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by Kent M. Beeson Retrospective Film

Hazard | Sion Sono

August 16, 2016

If there’s one word that beats at the heart of the violent, restless Hazard, Sion Sono’s 11th film, it’s “transcendence.” Nominally a crime story about a Japanese college student named Shinichi (Jo Odagiri) who falls in with the wrong crowd on the mean streets of New York, Hazard intends to upend given notions of what transcendence might look like. Shinichi’s “wrong crowd”—Lee (Jai West) and Takeda (Motoki Fukami)—rob convenience stores and sell speed-laced cones from a tinkling ice cream truck. But rather than lead Shinichi to an early grave, they turn out to be best friends, his family, and his road to transformation. In this world, holding up a restaurant is a means to self-actualization. Transcendence doesn’t really mean much, though, if you don’t have a reality to transcend, and Sono uses his handheld digital camera to give his New York a jagged, concrete seediness that would make Abel Ferrara nod approvingly. (Conversely, scenes that take place in Japan are given a smooth and serene look.)

As thematically on-point as Hazard is, Sono seems disinterested in his film’s narrative, which can make for a rough sit.

Sono leans hard on images of flight: airplanes at the airport taunt Shinichi with the promise of escape from Japan, and there’s the recurring image of an empty runway, where the film’s improbable narrator, Shinichi’s future son, pretends to fly. (In one delightful bit of sound editing, Sono matches POV footage of a taxi-ing plane with the pitter-pat of footfalls.) There’s also a running visual of an imaginary penny that Shinichi says will earn him “a million”; even money can be transcended. Pointedly, though, American racism is the one thing that can’t be transcended, and it’s suggested that this is what leads to Lee and Takeda’s downfall. But as thematically on-point as Hazard is, Sono seems disinterested in his film’s narrative, which can make for a rough sit. Shinichi’s transformation from meek tourist to avenging badass is less mythical than generic, and other aspects of the film, like Lee’s relationship with a corrupt cop, count on our over-familiarity with genre tropes to fill in the blanks. The middle portion of Hazard is particularly soft, featuring a regrettable bit where Sono signposts his intentions by having Lee not only lend Shinichi a copy of Leaves of Grass, but shout lines of “I Sit and Look Out” at the Manhattan skyline.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by Jake Mulligan Retrospective Film

Into a Dream | Sion Sono

August 15, 2016
Into a Dream

An early moment in Sion Sono’s 2005 feature Into a Dream finds dorama actor Mutsugoro Suzuki (Tatsushi Tanaka) attending a low-budget Japanese-language staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, one marked by experimental acting and deliberately unreal conceits of staging. Suzuki joins a number of the performers after for drinks, where he catches some shade for his safer artistic choices: “I’m happy to be doing Tennessee Williams,” a member of the troupe announces. One of Suzuki’s many girlfriends spots him wincing at the remark, and asks what’s wrong, but his answer—”a cavity”—convinces no one.

If Suicide Club announced a transition to a new filmmaking cycle for Sono, one where the director’s work became more genre-oriented and commercially viable, then it’s hard not to read Into a Dream as a self-lacerating consideration of that decision. But Sono, never content with single-mindedness, quickly sublimates that anxiety into another: the insatiable Suzuki’s relentless womanizing, which has recently resulted in a mysteriously-diagnosed STD. There’s a series of encounters and conversations (the wife, the side-piece, the secret tryst), all of them with women who expect some level of humanity from Suzuki (commitment, interest, passion, or sex), and for none of whom does he provide, given that he’s treating each as a suspect (“You’re the type of guy who cheats on his wife,” says one of the film’s many spectres, “your dick is messing up your life”). One girlfriend even literalizes the connection between two vices, striking him with the observation that strong performers make for weak lovers—his fluctuating artistry and his philandering penis have become the intersecting traumas of his existence.

If Suicide Club announced a transition to a new filmmaking cycle for Sono then it’s hard not to read Into a Dream as a self-lacerating consideration of that decision.

This represents merely one of three planes of reality within the film, and Sono declines to explain their arrangement. Moments of unconsciousness set Suzuki on his own transition, propelling him from one of these worlds to another (Sono’s handheld DV aesthetic, defined by his antic camera movements and unrefined sense of composition, remains consistent across the divergent waking states). First he is a television actor returning to Toyo City after contracting a disease; next he is a revolutionary planning to demolish the nation’s cellular service; and last he is a man in a cell being questioned by two officers, with no indication as to which of these is “reality,” and which are merely “dreams.” (With this being cinema, and Sono’s edits being discontinuous, all three can only pass for the latter.) What does recur within the trio are a series of verbal motifs (“When I was in my 20s, life was so full of possibilities”; “When did I become someone I’m not? It does not matter”) and an interrogatory sense of conversation. Sono is exploring the chosen traumas, but he’s also considering the way that art and narratives—at any level of accessibility, within any given cycle of his career—allow for an abstraction that can help to create personal insight. Naturally, his characters keep returning to the same malapropism, one that embodies the concept of an experience relived through the visual arts: “deja view.”

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by Sean Gilman Retrospective Film

Suicide Club | Sion Sono

August 15, 2016
Suicide Club

Suicide Club opens with a montage of the city at night: documentary realist footage of pedestrians moving through Tokyo, on and off of trains and through stations, is scored to a peppy martial beat. Then, in a dreadful instant, the familiar tropes of the city symphony turn to horror as 54 teenaged girls leap, in unison, from a subway platform and in front of an on-coming train—leading to a cataclysm of squished heads and blood-spray. This is how Sion Sono begins his first major film: after more than a decade of partially successful experiments, he fashions a unique and uneasy blend of psychological realism and exploitation. Suicide Club is a serious exploration of the psychoses of modern society, punctured by a black absurdity; it’s a delicate balancing act, interrogating humanity’s darkest urges while celebrating the joy of primal cinematic sensationalism. That opening is followed by a textbook suspense sequence: disappearing nurses and a befuddled night watchman, tension built solely with darkness and sound, as skillfully crafted as any paranormal tale. Then Sono switches gears into a detective story: a handful of police investigate a series of possibly connected suicides, including the young girls’ jump.

The cops are aided by an anonymous hacker, who hints at a website apparently connected to the deaths, and more mysterious clues are discovered. One cop becomes intrigued by a female witness, while another returns home each night to his loving family. Each of these characters—the cops, the hacker, the witness, even the nightwatchman—believe themselves to be the protagonist of a different film, and each is lead to a different conclusion about the crime (the nightwatchman encounters ghosts; the hacker stumbles into a psychotic glam gang led by an animal-murdering singer with a Manson complex; one cop fails to resolve the contradiction between work and family, while the other’s vision of himself as the hero in an offbeat romantic drama is rejected by the object of his affection). The witness comes closest to understanding what is at work here, but her investigation—involving a cryptic series of messages left by a highly popular tween girl band—doesn’t appear to lead to any kind of logical solution, a nullity reinforced by a refrain repeated by the child who may lead the cult: “There is no Suicide Club.” Taking the self-negation of Fight Club one step further: you can’t talk about it, it doesn’t even exist.

Sion Sono’s first major film…one of the great expressions of 21st Century psychosis, along with films like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After

The characters in Suicide Club are repeatedly asked what connection they have to themselves in a film whose disparate parts never quite hang together in the way we’ve been taught to expect. The most harrowing sequence in the film doesn’t even have any causal relation to the broader mystery, as another group of youths leap to their doom—this time, from the roof of a school, in a copycat suicide—and not out of any explicit act of brainwashing, or a mind-blowing koan, or demonic possession, but simply as a result of a snowballing peer pressure. What Sono’s captured here is the lunatic spirit of the age: Suicide Club is one of the great expressions of 21st Century psychosis, along with films like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After—films that actively resist the demands not just of traditional narrative or tastefulness, but that embrace the anti-rationality of the hyper-real. Virtual concepts can become tangible and malignant—and pop music will destroy, or save, us all.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by Paul Attard Retrospective Film

The Real Body | Sion Sono

August 12, 2016
The Real Body

Sion Sono’s eighth feature refined and nearly perfected his early, amateurish Dogme 95-esque aesthetic. Billed as a “film about the human body,” The Real Body is a totally singular hybrid of documentary and fiction. It examines the work of four artists—photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, buoh dancer Akaji Maro, fashion designer Shinichiro Arakawa, and Sono himself—each of whom use the human body, in different ways, to express lust, love, and desire. Sono also directs a film-within-the-film following a high school girl (Keiko Hamaguchi) who loves to run and falls for a restaurant worker (Takuji Suzuki). The two unnamed characters elope—after dragging a statue of Hachikō the dog (in Japan, a symbol of faithfulness) through the streets—and subsequently find a place to consummate their love. Most of the action in this section comes from the couple running down lengthy streets, Sono chasing behind, filming them with his handheld camera. The actors are non-professional, which gives sequences a more gritty, naturalistic feeling—despite an indulgence of absurd comedy.

More recommended for those familiar with Sono, who wish to see the oddball director’s still-developing skills.

Sono’s humor has always tended toward the whacky, and this film is no exception: line readings are screamed and panties are liberally displayed—it’s a Japanese style of comedy that understandably alienates some audiences. The distinction Sono is interested in exploring through this exaggerated behavior is that between a filled and an unfilled body. What exactly can fill a body? Have the two lovers in Sono’s film-within-the-film filled theirs? While we ponder these questions, individual scenes show us Sono at work writing his film’s screenplay, or having a roundtable read with his actors—even his assistant director’s divorce is touched on, a result of stress from working on this project. Paired with this study are the works of the other artists—most strikingly, Araki’s photography. In Araki’s work, naked bodies pile up next to each other, all hollow tools given meaning only by whatever position the artist wishes that they take. Sono, who was a poet before he became a director, has clearly taken on an ambitious project, one covering a lot of metaphysical territory in under two hours. There’s a freewheeling momentum that prevents him from being weighed down by his thesis, but newcomers may be put off by the purposefully grimy aesthetic and lack of structure. The Real Body is more recommended for those familiar with Sono, who wish to see the oddball director’s still-developing skills just before he made his biggest hit, Suicide Club.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by Matt Lynch Retrospective Film

Teachers of Sexual Play: Modelling Urns With the Female Body | Sion Sono

August 11, 2016
Teaches Play

The title of this pre-Suicide Club entry—which Sion Sono categorizes as a straight pink film—pretty much sums up the film in its entirety. Together with his wife, a master pottery maker (played by Sono himself), crippled by some unnamed malady, channels sexual energy into art. The couple teach a pottery class with just three naïve students (two eager, nubile girls and a nerdy guy), the ultimate goal of which is to maintain their long-standing winning streak at a local art fair. That sounds like a fairly fertile premise for a sexplo movie, but Sono does almost nothing with it; the instructors extoll the virtues of using love to create their pieces, but that mostly entails endless, blandly shot softcore scenes, with an awful lot of humping and moaning, packed with repetitive, shticky jokes, like a vase being, uh, blown into shape or molded by a girl’s boobs. There’s a lot of smearing of clay on naked bodies in these near-constant sexual encounters, but beyond that this desperately longs for a dose of real sleaze or at the very least some imaginative camerawork, qualities that tend to enliven even the most dreadfully tired pinku (and there are a great many). The film also displays exactly none of the crazed imagery, occasional dangerous eroticism, or go-for-it playfulness of recent, more evidently gonzo Sono efforts like Tokyo Tribe, which soared through its two-plus hours while this is a slog at a mere 65 minutes. One longs to know what a true pink auteur like Norifumi Suzuki (School of the Holy Beast) or Masaru Konuma (Wife to Be Sacrificed) could’ve done with this material.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by Carson Lund Retrospective Film

I Am Keiko | Sion Sono

August 10, 2016
I Am Keiko

I Am Keiko is a film caught within the dimensions of its maker’s head, composed of and consumed by the limits of that brain’s capacity for thought. This is a statement of fact, not a value judgment, and a twofold statement at that. Sion Sono may have directed I Am Keiko but Keiko herself, a 22-year-old waitress grieving from the recent loss of her father to cancer, is positioned within the film’s fictional framework as the sole author of its images and structure, with the film we’re watching ostensibly a celluloid diary transmitted to us as we’re witnessing it. Keiko plainly addresses the parameters of her film in voiceover: in exactly one hour and one minute’s time—she dictates to us as we contemplate the ticking of a statically framed clock—we will finish watching a series of recordings from her daily life, over which she will exercise total freedom with regard to the content and means of expression. Keiko is also implicitly forthcoming about her lack of a grand idea: “Sometimes I feel bored because of time,” she admits, shortly after presenting, in rambling deadpan, a detailed taxonomy of her accrued life experience in seconds, minutes and hours. Of course, Sono is the real figure pulling these strings, but as the author behind the author, he’s granted no reprieve from this hermetic constructed headspace. There’s no coup de cinema to put Keiko in perspective. In fact, I Am Keiko seems to emerge, creatively speaking, from the same tabula rasa state to which Keiko is resigned after her father’s death (tellingly, an onscreen dedication to Sono’s late teacher precedes the film proper).

A conceptual work fixated on the interplay between self-imposed rules and the mitigating drama of thought.

On a purely objective level, Sono’s is a film made without an idea beyond the creation of enough material to fill a pre-allotted temporal real estate, but the meaning of I Am Keiko paradoxically lies within that seeming non-idea. When loneliness and futility are enveloping, can the mere act of creating cinema stave off the void? If within the moving image’s very DNA is the crushing reminder of time elapsed, how can it? While never Keiko’s explicit considerations, these questions anchor in melancholic reality the film’s moment-to-moment eccentricities. In one scene, Keiko gazes into the camera lens for five minutes; in another, she dons a wig and acts out “Keiko’s News Today” from a DIY reporter’s desk; in another, she offers only a fragmented view of a kitchen table upon which remains of her past have been carefully arranged. Nearly all these vignettes take place in her apartment, an artfully furnished studio space painted in garish primary colors (perhaps another project recently undertaken as mental distraction?), with one notable exception being an open field where Keiko plods through knee-high snow, methodically counting her every step out loud just as she narrated the ticking of her clock earlier. The landscape recalls that seen in the conclusion of Hollis Frampton’s Zorn’s Lemma, another conceptual work fixated on the interplay between self-imposed rules and the mitigating drama of thought. And as with that tightly wound and endlessly suggestive cinematic artifact, I Am Keiko cuts off exactly when promised, at which point it’s finally freed from Sono-cum-Keiko’s collective headspace. Now we’re the ones counting the seconds as they pass.

by Scout Tafoya Retrospective Film

The Room | Sion Sono

August 9, 2016
The Room Big

Where Shin’ya Tsukamoto pulled Japan’s industrial guts out and gave them horrid new life, Sion Sono dove in to the same viscera and lit a cigarette. Ballardian ennui and Garrellian textured stillness, Sono bites his thumb at the idea of precious pretension as a way to critique modernity. The heroes of 1993’s The Room—a man dressed like a detective, a woman trying to sell him an apartment—speak around each other, trying and failing to re-code the other’s linguistic pattern. Sono snickers at their awkward longeurs, papered over by the sound of subliminal newspaper salesmen and transit trains. Sleepwalking agents of chaos murdered at a gas and go, Godard’s favorite way station (even Demy saw its blue collar poetry as essential to any depiction of modern life), guns dropped out of pockets absentmindedly, the piss more important than anything (Harvey Pekar would agree).

Sono looked long into the abyss of popular, post-modern art, and realized he could do it standing on his head.

So what then does this mopey exploration and flagrant monotony mean? Sono looked long into the abyss of popular, post-modern art, and realized he could do it standing on his head. The sounds of footsteps, of glass scraping sidewalk, the implicit rattle of the magazine in the camera silenced like the death throes of these tragic automatons. His hero looks for a room, Sono looks for a reason to play with old forms and finds only a mirror he has no use for. He could look at his cinephilic forebears, whip smart unto boredom, and imitate them all day until his hero finds an apartment that meets his specifications, but he won’t settle for a room that had been occupied before. There’s so much out there yet to be mapped, so many roads untraveled, stations unvisited, rooms that need demolishing. Even the black and white photography speaks of frustration, boredom, the know-it-all with a cigarette rolling his eyes in the back of the class. Sono walls up idle modernity, Poe-style, trapping its temptations like a diseased population (Cronenberg smiles dryly in the back of this achy-joint jaunt). The world didn’t need another lonely tenant in borrowed clothes, barely able to lift the muscles needed to go through the motions. It needed Sion Sono and it needed him at 120 miles per hour, loosed and wild, no walls to stare at. Bye Bye 20th Century, and bye bye cinema.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake