Tag Archives: Sion Sono

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: CRAZY SAMURAI MUSASHI (2020)

Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

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DIRECTED BY: Yûji Shimomura

FEATURING:

PLOT: The titular character kills 588 samurai and mercenaries because he’s Crazy Samurai Musashi.

COMMENTS: Yûji Shimomura’s third feature film, Crazy Samurai Musashi, is basically a master’s thesis in fight choreography. It isn’t weird, unless you consider a seventy-seven-minute, uninterrupted cut of a swordsman uninterruptedly cutting up his foes to be weird. And it could be argued it isn’t really even a movie, because no semblance of “story arc” exists, as highlighted by the epilogue in which the older (and still crazy) samurai Musashi slashes his way through a fresh batch of goons because That’s Just What He Does. So what is this thing?

This thing begins with a fairly traditional prologue involving novel cinematic practices like “zooms”, “cuts”, “editing”, and dialogue. A clan of samurai want vengeance against Musashi for killing two of their leaders. They’ve gathered the whole gang together, as well as three-hundred mercenaries, so as to make sure that the job gets done. As the men gather their courage, a small boy, the scion of the clan’s elder, is distracted by a butterfly. Musashi’s arrival is advertised by his daring leap from a nearby tree–during which he slices the butterfly in twain and kills the young boy. The long take starts right after Musashi commands, “Let’s get this started!”

Having read up a little on Yûji Shimomura, I am not surprised by the fighting: his main contribution to cinema has been stunt and fight coordination. What caught my eye is that Sion Sono was involved (he wrote this thing). Sono is an oddball among oddballs, with an eye for excess and strange humor.

The excess is covered by Shimomura—nearly six hundred deaths occur on screen. The humor crops up in the occasional interludes between sword fights. Musashi always finds water canteens during lulls in the combat, almost like video game power-ups. He has an amusingly civil exchange with a young woman in a wood shed, and is miffed when she breaks her promise to keep quiet as he’s catching his breath. He shows obvious confusion when he tries tallying his kills halfway through the massacre. And then there’s my favorite: Musashi increasingly busts out the “Bring it!” gesture at the remaining fighters as the body count rises.

Watching Tak Sakaguchi exhaust himself was itself an exhausting experience. He’s a credit to combat actors: even as he grows more and more breathless, he maintains a steely look and a flair for body language. Crazy Samurai Musashi doesn’t quite work as a movie, but it’s a must-see for anyone making a combat film. Too often fight scenes, large and small, are impossible to follow. If one director can do it for seventy-seven minutes straight, others with more editing leeway and bigger budgets have zero excuse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an impressive feat of fight choreography and of physical stamina on both sides of the camera, not least from its indefatigable star Tak Sakaguchi.”–Allan Hunter, Screen Daily (festival screening)

CAPSULE: TOKYO TRIBE (2014)

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DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono

FEATURING: Kunihiko Kawakami, Young Dais, Nana Seino, Ryôhei Suzuki,

PLOT: When crazy Buppa releases the Waru gang onto the streets of Tokyo, the tribes unite and fight for survival to the sick beats of gangster rap.

Still from Tokyo Tribe (2014)

COMMENTS: If Tokyo Tribe came from any other director, I’d probably say he was trying too hard. However, having seen a few Sion Sono films now, I can see that this is just how the man operates: on a plane with far more mania and extravagance than we mere mortals. Minutes after opening on two urban youths playing with sparklers, dreaming about making a difference, we become fully tuned in to the manga world of Santa Inoue’s serialized epic. Live-action comics, rap battle exposition, and the silliest feud imaginable—Sion Sono delivers all this with his own amped up brand of gusto.

The mean streets of post-post-modern Tokyo are riddled with crime, prostitution, bootleg tapes, ineffectual cops, and close to two dozen gangs of themed thugs. The biggest and nastiest of all the gang lords is Buppa, a man of staggering vulgarity and true psychosis (performed by Riki Takeuchi as if he were a brain-damaged John Belushi). His prime henchman, Mera, holds a grudge against Kai, the leader of the “peaceful” gang, the Musashino Saru tribe. Kai offended Mera in a sauna some years back, and that’s all we’re told. The catalyst for action is the disappearance of the virginal daughter of the High Priest, who needs her for a sacrifice. The plot I’ve just provided is superfluous, and any more would force me to ramble on for some pages. Suffice it to say, you should just check your brain at the door and run with it.

Tokyo Tribe isn’t a weird movie—it is far too accessible for that (and yes, it is a bit weird how accessible this movie feels). But it does stand as one of the most ridiculous films I’ve ever seen (which is something I say neither lightly nor disparagingly). The glorious excess of Sion Sono’s vision of an alternative Tokyo has more than its share of hard R-rated shenanigans, but is somehow approachable throughout (although by the end, we’ll have seen a beat-box tea maid, balloon sex corridors, a case of cigars and fingers, and a black ninja giant who says only, “Bring me! To a! Sauna!”) While Tokyo Tribe doesn’t break the weird ceiling, it does lustily gouge at the plaster.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Words can never do justice to the awe-inspiring, brain-eating weirdness of Sion Sono’s Japanese dystopian hip-hop kung-fu musical Tokyo Tribe…  should all be either horrifying or hilarious — or, less generously, ridiculous and offensive — but somehow, it’s not. There’s a strange power to Sion’s filmmaking that goes beyond the midnight-movie oddness of the plot.”–Bilge Ebiri, New York Magazine (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE FOREST OF LOVE (2019)

Ai-naki Mori de Sakebe

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kippei Shîna, Eri Kamataki, , Kyoko Hinami, Sei Matobu

PLOT: A group of young filmmakers make a movie about a con-man they suspect of being a serial killer, but he turns the tables on them when he offers to produce the film, then turns the crew into a sadomasochistic cult of killers.

Still from The Forest of Love (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Sion Sono doesn’t do “normal”; he goes for broke on every project. Forest of Love is overlong, ugly, perverse, masturbatory, and fascinating.

COMMENTS: The intricate plot of Forest of Love includes, among other things, a “Romeo and Juliet” centered lesbian love triangle, a schoolgirl suicide pact, a Svengali-like conman who seduces younger women into sadomasochistic relationships, an outlaw film crew who act like the Manson cult and run around Japan committing murders, bourgeois parents given a punk makeover, days of wine and electrocution, ghosts, and possible identity switches at the end. Sono purportedly based the screenplay on a real-life killer, but I’m thinking that he might have changed a few of the details.

The Forest of Love is a bruising movie. Its two-and-a-half hour length would normally only pose a minor challenge to the viewer, but the extreme level of emotional cruelty Sono wallows in makes it into more of an endurance test. The suicide attempts are particularly brutal, not only because of the squirmy gore, but also due to the callous reactions (the family here finds suicide shameful, and are more concerned with covering up the disgrace than empathizing with their suffering child). But although many stretches of the film are nightmarish episodes of physical and psychological torture that feel like they’re never going to end, there are also moments of incredible beauty (slo-mo schoolgirls in their underwear singing and dancing to Pachelbel’s “Canon”) and black comedy (Murata, taking on the persona of a rock star, hosts a concert with an audience stocked with his previous marks).

Sono mixes elements that are purely exploitative (and often frankly sick) with gorgeous mise en scene, expert style, and just enough intellectualism and self-reflection to overcome charges of pandering. In true Surrealist fashion, he attacks the basic institutions of society, showing Murata molding those in his orbit into an obscene mockery of a nuclear family. But he contrasts this caricature with a portrait of a real dysfunctional Japanese family that is even worse, because it is so real. There’s a lot of subtle mirroring in the plot; the teasing play between the lesbian trio in flashbacks reflect the sadomasochistic dynamics we see between Murata and the two girls, and between Murata and the two young male filmmakers. One figure is always playing off two against each other.

Sono also treads a fine line between realism and absurdity.  Murata manipulates his marks subtly, so that when they go along with his requests it seems almost reasonable at first; he then pushes them further and further until murder seems not only natural, but inevitable. Murata isn’t physically imposing and is greatly outnumbered, so all it would take to frustrate his plans is for any individual to stand up to him at any point. But cowering before his bullying seems reasonable; you see how they fear him, and feel their fear. No one wants to be the first to call him out, because he seldom dishes out punishment himself, instead commanding another to do the dirty work for him. As long as you are the one Murata asks to wield the electrical paddle against the disobedient, you won’t be on the receiving end. Of course, that respite only lasts until you displease the master; but you can see how easy it is for everyone to fall in line. By the time things get truly ridiculous, with the austere father sporting a mohawk and chugging a beer while assaulting his honored relatives, the audience has been brought along so slowly—like the proverbial frog boiled in a pot of gradually warming water—that it almost seems believable. (Of course, the finale will blow any claim to non-hallucinatory realities out of the water).

The fascist element of Murata’s charisma, coupled with the satire aimed at the Japanese family and society, suggests a political allegory. But I couldn’t help theorizing that Sono sees himself as something of a Murata… at least, recognizes that he has the potential within him to be a Murata. In the very first scene, in Murata tells a waiter he’s a screenwriter, and wonders out loud what it feels like to kill someone. The many generic references to other Sono movies and themes—the self-destruction pact like in Suicide Club, filmmakers documenting real crimes like in Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, the manipulative serial killer straight out of Cold Fish—only reinforce that sense of self-identification. “Crimes are fun in the movies and in real life,” muses one character. Does the impulse to film such dark fantasies say something about Sono? What does our desire to watch them say about us? Is Sono a con-man implicating us in his cinematic crimes? Sono fools around with those ideas, blurring the lines between representation and reality; he’s in a sadomasochistic relationship with his own demonic persona.

It’s a sign of Sono’s rising prestige that Netflix would sign him for an original exclusive production just like an Alfonso Cuarón or a , and give him carte blanche to make a movie so transgressive that people might think it really was made by a serial killer. It’s a sign of Sono’s continued outlaw status that Netflix would then hide the finished product away, not giving it a token theatrical release like Roma or The Irishman.

Forest of Love was Sono’s first film project after returning to work from a heart attack in February of this year. It was funded by, and screens exclusively on, Netflix (unfortunately, they did not give it even a token theatrical release). The dubbed version plays by default, so look around in your settings to switch it to the original Japanese with subtitles for a better experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sion Sono does not care that his movie is too long. He doesn’t care that it’s weird or gross or inconsistent or anything that a producer’s note might protest. We see so many movies every year that feel like the product of a focus group or marketing team. Not this one.”–Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kaho, , Megumi Kagurazaka

PLOT: A clan of vampires forced to live in hiding attempt to tip the scales of power by capturing a group of humans in their hotel fortress and turning them into a generational supply of food; however, their perennial aboveground enemies have conspired to birth an avenger during a cosmic convergence, and now that she has come of age, the final battle between the two warring forces is at hand.

Still from Tokyo Vampire Hotel (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being a TV miniseries, and therefore technically beyond our purview, “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” has a difficult time figuring out what it wants to be. Although it is built upon a foundation of gore and slapstick and features elaborate and sometimes confusing worldbuilding, the story works best at a character level, focusing on the motivations of its complicated leads. At its best, the weirdness tends to be more window dressing than of a true mission of the series.

COMMENTS: Following my lengthy discourse on the cinematic genre of vampires, as well as my brief sojourn into the vault of the Nikkatsu film studio, watching this 9-part bloodsucker miniseries felt a bit like old home week. Fortunately, that’s not to say it was boring to watch Sion Sono’s take on the legend. Far from it; as much as he may be cherry-picking his favorite parts of the mythos, what he has created is anything but a retread.

If anything, Tokyo Vampire Hotel has way too much going on. The very first episode opens with a deeply uncomfortable mass shooting, which serves as a springboard for the kind of violence-chase set pieces that would be completely at home in an 80s Hollywood action movie. But this quickly fractures into a character study of our two heroines: Manami, an orphan raised under trying circumstances to become the vanquisher of an entire race of vampires, and K, the underground defender whose unrequited love is consistently co-opted for the violent means of others. When not delving into their backstories, Sono is creating the candy-colored, blood-drenched world of the titular hotel, populated by eccentric characters that include a vampire queen who keeps shrinking into nothingness, a wildly attired, dreadlocked hepcat whose own father sold him to vampires as a baby in exchange for becoming Japan’s prime minister, and a maternal figure who may be housing the entire hotel within her nether regions. Add into that a ballroom full of lovelorn humans who have been lured into the hotel (and for whom seemingly every one is provided a rich backstory), a cult of hippie-like Romanians who are connected to Tokyo by tunnel, and a late-series jump forward in time that almost completely restarts the story, and the effect is downright dizzying. It’s legitimately weird, but after a while, it becomes a “Mad Lib” kind of weird: oddness courtesy of dissonance.

Which only makes it all the more astonishing that Sono then carved Continue reading CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

2018 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: THE FINAL SLICE OF STRANGE

Au Revoir

The Festival’s second half proved to be quite worthwhile, with a few gems tucked away in the final days. It was good, but my eyes started to hurt.

7/29: One Cut of the Dead

One Cut of the Dead Poster (2018)This should have appeared in the previous week’s “slice”, but for a couple of days I toyed with doing a fuller write-up of Shin’ichirô Ueda’s “found footage” horror exercise. I’m going to ask that you trust me on this, because I cannot say any more without compromising your viewing experience. But you Really, Really Should see this if you can. For those like me who regard the zombie genre as effectively run into the ground, this movie—despite what it seems the premise is—breathes so much life into the tired, tired tropes of zombie-this, -that, and -the-other. Top-notch cast, top-notch direction, top-notch notch. (Highly recommended.)

7/30: The Scythian

Still from The Scythian (2018)I had unfortunately missed seeing this on the big screen as both screenings conflicted with other films. However, even on a modest 41″ television in a darkened cubicle, Rustam Mosafir’s proto-Russian adventure fantasy proved itself to be one heckuva ride. Filled with sword fights, betrayals, mysterious pagans, and some crazy berserker-juice, The Scythian was everything one could want in a medieval adventure yarn. In particular, the score (which is something I’ve noticed I’ve been noticing a lot more) heightened the historical and mystical tones. Both the diegetic music from traveling performers and the ambient tribal chanting grounded the old world feeling; things cut loose a bit more during a fine bit of fighting when the chants were paired with some sick heavy metal guitar. While criticized in its homeland for a lack of historicity, I was more than happy to overlook incongruities from a millennium ago.

Cinderella the Cat

Still from Cinderella the Cat (2018)With four directors covering 86 minutes, you get about twenty-one minutes per director. I’m not sure how the assignment was divvied up (though conceivably they could had one for the animation, one for the voice acting, one Continue reading 2018 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: THE FINAL SLICE OF STRANGE

CAPSULE: TAG (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reina Triendl, Mariko Shinoda, Erina Mano, Yuki Sakurai,

PLOT: A Japanese schoolgirl finds herself shunted through many different realities, all of which want to kill her and her companions.

Still from Tag (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: At an earlier stage of this project’s development, Tag might have been shortlisted. This quintessentially Japanese mix of exploitation and surrealism will hit the sweet spot for fans of smart splatterpunk, Sono-style, but doesn’t go far enough above and beyond to merit consideration for the List, considering the shrinking number of available slots.

COMMENTS: There’s no denying that Tag‘s opening gambit, featuring two busloads of schoolgirls sheared in half by unseen forces, is one of the more memorable opening statements in recent movie history. If the rest of the movie never quite catches up to that level of excitement, it still leaves one hell of an impression on the viewer. It leaves quite an impression on lone survivor Mitsuko, too. In silent shock, she wanders into her schoolyard, where everyone is going about the day normally and treats her as if she‘s the one who’s insane, blubbering about a killer wind. Everyone, that is, except for her girlfriend nicknamed “Sur” (for “surreal”), who explains about alternate realities and the butterfly effect. This sophomore-level philosophy gains some credibility when the school’s teachers pull out machine guns and start mowing down their students (in a sort of nasty reversal of the final scene of If…. ). Mitskuko is again the lone survivor, fleeing the carnage into yet another, equally dangerous version of reality…

Fun Tag drinking game: take a swig every time a male actor appears onscreen. Tag is so female-centric that, despite the fetish schoolgirl uniforms and the ample panty shots, = it’s hard not to see it as Sono’s feminist statement. What form that statement takes isn’t one-hundred percent clear, but it would seem to involve something about the various (limiting) roles females are forced into in Japanese society (by males) and the resulting anxiety that engenders in young women trying to establish their own identity. The ending revelation, which seems intended to tie everything together and reveal a hidden logic, is underwhelming. A lot still remains unexplained when the curtain falls—for example, the pig-man. In the end, I suppose you just have to take Sur’s advice: “Stay strong. Life is surreal. Don’t let it consume you.”

Tag‘s gore effects are provided by another 366 fave, (Tokyo Gore Police).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…another feather in the highly idiosyncratic cap of Japanese helmer Sion Sono. This cavalcade of carnage set in a bizarre parallel world where women are chased and slaughtered by all manner of human and supernatural forces hits the sweet spot where grindhouse meets arthouse.”–Richard Kuipers, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sir Exal. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

244. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)

Jigoku de naze warui

“We’re in reality, and they’re in the fantastic. Reality is going to lose!”–Ikegami, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hiroki Hasegawa, Fumi Nikaidou, Jun Kunimura, , , , Tomochika

PLOT: Director Hirata leads a group of anarchic filmmakers who dub themselves “the Fuck Bombers”; he wants to make one great movie in his life, or die trying. Meanwhile, the Muto clan is at war with a rival bunch of yazkuza, and Boss Muto’s daughter, Mitsuko, is starting her career as a child actress with a popular toothpaste commercial. Ten years later these two plotlines collide when, through a string of coincidences, Boss Muto hires Hirata to film his raid on rival Ikegami’s headquarters, in hopes that the footage will be used in a movie that will make Mitsuko a star.

Still from Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shion Sono belonged to an amateur filmmaking group in high school and drew on those experiences for writing the script. (Future director was also a member of the group). The character of Hirata is based on an acquaintance, however, not on Sono himself. (Sono relates that he was cast in the “Bruce Lee” role in their amateur productions).
  • Sono wrote the script about fifteen years before it was produced.
  • Many viewers incorrectly assume that the yellow tracksuit Tak Sagaguchi wears is a reference to ‘s outfit in Kill Bill. In fact, both and Sono are referencing Bruce Lee’s costume from Game of Death. Sono was so irritated by the constant misidentification that he included an explicit reference to it in his next feature, Tokyo Tribe (2014).
  • Why Don’t You Play in Hell? was the winner of this site’s 6th Readers’ Choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s a close call between the scene of a darling little Mitsuko singing a toothpaste commercial jingle while standing ankle deep in a pool of blood in her living room, or the rainbow-colored jets of blood that stream from yakuza hearts punctured by adult Mitsuko’s katana as she stabs her way through a field of flowers. Take your pick.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Singing in the blood, vomiting on a prayer, rainbow arterial spray

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Up until the final thirty minutes, Hell appears only mildly unusual; the characters and situations are exaggerated, but besides one bloody hallucinatory memory and a broken-bottle French kiss, not too much happens that you couldn’t see in a Japanese version of Get Shorty. When it comes time for the movie-within-a-movie to roll, things change: decapitated heads fly about like bats and stylish machismo flows as freely as blood as logic flees the scene in abject terror.


U.S. release trailer for Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

COMMENTS: Ambitious high-school director Hirata addresses the Continue reading 244. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)