by Jake Mulligan

by Jake Mulligan Retrospective Film

Guilty of Romance | Sion Sono

August 25, 2016
Guilty of Romance

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.

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.