by Christopher Bourne

by Christopher Bourne Retrospective Film

Shinjuku Swan | Sion Sono

August 29, 2016

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.

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

by Christopher Bourne Retrospective Film

I Am Sion Sono! | Sion Sono

August 3, 2016
I Am Sion Sono (1985)

Sion Sono fans, this is where it all begins. The wild, irreverent, iconoclastic, in-your-face style familiar to those who’ve seen even a few of the films the man made his name with in the 2000s (Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table, Love Exposure), it was all there from the start. Here you get it in its purest, rawest form, shot on 8mm in 1985, when Sono was all of 22 years old, unencumbered by plots, commercial constraints, or professional actors. It’s as close as one can possibly get to peeking directly into the very psyche of an artist, full of the brashness and energy of youth. If cinema was Sono’s drug, then this is a portrait of a man getting very, very high on his own supply. Certainly, I Am Sion Sono! bore not a whit of resemblance to anything playing on movie screens in 1985. Starting out as a sort of filmed diary, as Sono counts down the days to his birthday, the first scene shows the filmmaker entering the frame, staring directly into the camera, and saying, “Hello. I am Sion Sono.” And just in case you didn’t catch it the first time, he tells you his name again a few minutes later. However, any potential narcissism or self-aggrandizing is largely mitigated by Sono’s intimately charming screen presence.

The threshold has been breached…

If Sono’s the star of the show, then his equal co-star is his own camera, which asserts its presence just as boldly as does Sono himself. The initial, solitary diary-making soon gives way to progressively weirder moments involving close friends, as Sono explores the things he can do with his camera, making it simultaneously a poet’s pen, an artist’s brush, and a musical instrument. The director turns himself and others into stop-motion animated objects; aggressively plays with a woman on the street, speaking in a high-pitched squeal; lets out ear-splitting shrieks as someone shaves his head; and puts on a bloody, psychosexual mini-drama, writhing naked amongst plaster sculptures and mannequins. In the end, the mere 37-minute runtime proves inadequate to fully contain Sono’s boundless ambition and experimentation. “Maybe I’ve reached my limit,” he says, as the images fade and he begins to run out of film. Sono’s voice continues, rebelling against the disappearing picture, describing what he sees, lamenting, “But you can’t see anything!” Despite all this, Sono commands the viewer, “Don’t make up your own images.” He makes it clear that there’s only room for one creator here. The final image captured is that of the camera traveling down a corridor toward a door, as Sono’s voiceover counts to twenty. White leader fills the screen before we reach the door, but we don’t need to see it to know the threshold has been breached, or to know that, for Sono, much greater artistic glories await.

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