Thursday, 21 July 2011

Shion Sono: The Saviour Of Japanese Cinema?

There have been those recently that have spoken of the decline of modern Japanese cinema over the last few years. At last years Mumbai Film Festival, Takashi Koizumi (assistant director for 20 years to the master himself, Akira Kurosawa) said “contemporary cinema I am sorry to say is not in a good state. I am alarmed by Japanese cinema right now”.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa hasn't made anything since the excellent Tokyo Sonata (2008) and I have failed to find any evidence of any new productions on the horizon. Takeshi Kitano has only torn himself away from TV work once since 2008, and while Outrage (2010) was fun in a nostalgic way it showed little of the brilliance we have come to expect from Kitano. While I will always watch with glee any new Shinya Tsukamoto release, has he really made anything truly vital since, well, Vital (2004)?

 However, Confessions (2010) shows that after the initial promise of Memories Of Matsuko (2006), Tetsuya Nakashima is certainly a name to look out for. Takashi Miike has always been a great talent, and his decision to slow down to only two films per year is helping his career mature into something very special indeed. One director who's body of work makes me the most optimistic for the future of Japanese cinema is Shion Sono. 

Sono had already made a handful of films before the turn of the millennium, including the winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo Film Festival, Heya (1992). The film that really brought his name to prominence in Japan and around the world, was the stunning Suicide Club (2001), also known as Suicide Circle. The opening scene of mass teen suicide on the subway is shocking for sure, but suggests that we are to be presented with an exploitation movie, a thrill ride. This feeling is backed up by the scenes that follow of a detective (Audition's Ryo Ishibashi) searching for a possible suicide cult, and the rolls of grafted skin belonging to the victims.

Still from Suicide Club 
While we are brought into the story with elements that could be found in a much trashier movie, Sono uses these genre elements to grab us then to take us somewhere else entirely, in much the same way Kiyoshi Kurosawa did the same year with Kairo. Sono has stated that he wrote and directed Suicide Club in an attempt to try and come to terms with the suicide of a close friend. Far from exploitation, this movie deals with themes including alienation, social withdrawal and the human inability to truly connect with one another, with many a stylistic flourish but also with a grounded sensitivity. Indeed this movie is a ride, but one of Sono's great talents is the way his rides can take you somewhere you least expect.

This is certainly true with the his sequel to Suicide Club, 2005's Noriko's Dinner Table. The easy choice after the success of the first film would have been to deliver more of the same, but the sequel takes a completely different approach to the subject of suicide. While the follow-up may not possess the same visceral power of its predecessor, it is refreshing to see a film maker explore a subject for himself rather than simply playing to the crowd. Noriko's Dinner Table does contain scenes of extreme violence and the mysterious air surrounding Kumiko and her 'family' lets us in on the fact that surprises are in store, but here Sono eschews the horror trappings of the first film. A surreal tone and hints of the abstract are still present but this follow up is a far more subdued and subtle work. 

Still from Noriko's Dinner Table

Strange Circus (2005) sees Shion Sono continue to explore the themes of family dysfunction and social alienation from his suicide films, here adding further taboo subjects such as incest and pedophilia. The director explores these themes within a Grand Guignol style horror. The first half of the film deals with the young Mitsuko and the extremely disturbing way she is forced to experience the depravity sometimes found within humanity. The at times exquisite stylistic touches deployed by Sono helps to make this part of the film moving as well as deeply troubling.

Midway through the film changes course and we follow the writer of Mitsuko's childhood, the novelist Taeko. This section of the piece doesn't have the same power as the first but builds up tension towards solving the enigma of Taeko and her relationship with the character in her novel, Mitsuko. I felt that the constant questioning of what constitutes reality, while at first interesting, becomes overplayed towards the end of the film. However, the idea of writing and artistic expression as a form of catharsis is subverted in a very interesting way by the climax of Strange Circus. This is the first time I noticed his real flair for the use of music, you would think that Bach had written his music directly for this film, Sono blending his images and the music so expertly. 

Still from Strange Circus
Also released in 2005, Hazard was shot on the mean streets of New York. For Hazard Sono swaps the overtly stylized film making of Strange Circus for a more raw and gritty approach. Hazard generally sticks to a well worn template found In many other juvenile delinquent and fish out of water pictures. While the film doesn't break much new ground there are points of interest, such as the contrast between the quiet and sedate Japan based scenes with the social anarchy found on the streets of New York. The slow transformation of the film's main protagonist Shin from a 'sleepy and restless' introvert to a desensitized cold killer is also engaging. It is also interesting to see Sono continue to explore themes of disconnection and social disaffection while experimenting with different styles of film making. 

Still from Hazard
Hair Extensions (2007) Is in many ways Sono's most generic movie, much of the film little more than just another Onryo movie. However, the film is intended as a parody of the apparently never ending line of long black haired Yurei movies that were kicked back into life after the success of Ringu (1998) and Ju-On(2002). Shion does manage to work in the themes of parental abuse found in his other works, but doesn't examine them in any in-depth way, unlike say Strange Circus. The main saving grace of Hair Extensions is the incredibly eccentric odd-ball villain, Yamazaki (Ren Osugi). 

Still from Hair Extensions
The film that made me realize that Shion Sono was capable of the truly sublime was his 4 hour opus Love Exposure (2008. The initial set-up alone is brilliant, after the death of his mother, Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) simply wants to connect with his Catholic priest father. His father however will only allow such a connection through confession. As such the otherwise straight laced Yu takes it upon himself to commit sins in order to get closer to his father. These start small, such as the killing of an insect, but Yu finds himself searching for more meaningful acts of transgression.

The film plays out at times like a Japanese Fight Club(1999), just switch the fight clubs with Tosatsu (the art of Karate to aid in taking photos of women's panties without them noticing). A kinetic and fast paced ride, this film packs in everything from religion to brainwashing cults (and explores the similarities of the two), perversions, sexuality, pop culture, the frailty of the human psyche, as well as the same themes of family dysfunction and social disaffection found throughout Sono's filmography. The film is filled to the brim with colourful yet generally well fleshed out characters.

Still from Love Exposure

Sono uses every stylistic trick available to him, even using a soundtrack that jumps from the majestic tones of the second movement of Beethoven's 7th to the sunny pop of Yura Yura Teikoko. Yet I would argue that Love Exposure is far from style over substance, rather the style enhances the abundance of of substance on offer. Some critics have suggested the film could be cut by two hours (the initial cut was 6 hours, so really it already has been), however I lost track of time while watching, by the end I was simply saddened that the experience was over.

Still from Love Exposure

 Cold Fish (2010) was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on the 27th of June here in the UK and will be available on DVD in the USA on the 23rd of August. Based on a true story Cold Fish sees the director examines further the themes of the disintegration of the family unit and the question of whether or not its possible to truly connect with others. What I found most interesting about the director's new film is that while his thematic obsessions remain largely unchanged he continues to find new and exciting ways to delve into them, analysing them further here whilst subverting the serial killer film.

Intoverted to the point of paralysis, Nobuyuki Syamoto (Mitsuru Fukukoshi) runs a small fish store with his second wife Taeko. Nobuyuki's daughter Mitsuko is very unhappy with the presence of her step mother Taeko in her life (interesting here that the names of this mother-daughter relationship mirror that of Strange Circus). After a bout of shoplifting by Mitusko, the family is taken under the wing of the charasmatic Murata. Murata, who runs a much larger exotic fish store, appears to be the complete antithesis of Nobuyuki. Loud, overtly outgoing and having an apparent insatiable love for life, Murata at first appears to be exactly what the family need. Once Murata's dark secret becomes apperent to Nobuyuki, he (along with the audience) is forced to confront the dark heart of humanity, as well as his own. Cold Fish is at times incredibly brutal, the physical violence on display only being outdone by the emotional violence. As Nobuyuki tells his daughter at one point “Life is pain, life hurts”. While in lesser hands the morbid and dark nature of the piece could become overbearing, Sono keeps the film enthralling throughout its running time. 


I for one look forward with great interest to the future films of Shion Sono, and hopefully the western distribution of his previous films that have not been mentioned in this article. I am sure and very hopeful that there are several up and coming film makers in Japan that have yet to be recognised outside of their native country (if anyone has any suggestions of such film makers I should be looking out for then please leave them in the comments section), but in the meantime I feel Sono has the potential to help out the likes of Kitano, Miike and Tsukamoto in keeping modern Japanese film essential to world cinema. Life is a strange circus indeed, luckily we have artists like Sono to help us make some sense of it. 



  1. Nice one but don't forget my favorite 'Strange Circus'

    BiH Lily