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Sono Sion - Sharing the Poetry of Perversion

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Japan has more than its share of controversial filmmakers, but it takes a certain audacity to kill 54 schoolgirls at once with a smile as director Sono Sion did in his 2001 cult hit Suicide Club. Even Fukasaku Kinji, whom Sono cites as an influence, took out his students one at a time in Battle Royale. One of Japanese Cinema's most interesting and inventive filmmakers over the last two decades, Sono is a familiar name on the international festival circuit and a cult favorite to fans of extreme cinema. From Suicide Club to Strange Circus to Love Exposure, Sono's films tackle ills like family dysfunction, suicide, youth disaffection, cult obsession, and social decay with a gripping collage of blood, breakdown, perversion, parody, and pop madness.

This year the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival (HKAFF) invited Sono to be its Director in Focus, presenting a retrospective of his works from his debut Bicycle Sighs to his latest Be Sure to Share. Sporting his trademark fedora, Sono spoke about his new film and views on filmmaking during the festival's Q&A exchange program and his interview with YumCha!.

Other than Fukasaku, Sono has a particular affinity for sixties and seventies Toei pictures, the action films and B-movies of his childhood whose influences subtly tiptoe into his own works. Nor does Sono mind if his own films are labeled B-movies. "In the past all action and sci-fi genre films were considered B-movies in Japan," he points out, "but as time passes perspectives change." Perhaps then it's only a matter of time before the perspective pendulum swings towards Sono, who is still more appreciated abroad and at festivals than at the Japanese box office.

The down-to-earth director has thus far written all of his films, building eminence and controversy with each effort since Suicide Club. Last year, Sono produced the ultimate fanboy festival opus, Love Exposure, a four-hour marathon whose teen hero is an upskirt photography guru. Asked whether his films' hentai themes reflect him, he good-naturedly replies, "All people are perverse; the difference is if you're aware of it."

Sono takes a similarly straightforward stance on blood and violence in his films. He doesn't give much thought to whether excessive onscreen violence has a negative effect on the audience when making his films; if anything, he believes that blood makes the film's message and impact clearer and stronger. Bloodshed visually conveys the emotional intensity of "seeing red" and "loving to death".

For those who associate Sono with violence, controversy, and perversion, his latest film is a curveball, a quiet relationship drama about a son coping with his father's impending death. A personal effort dedicated to Sono's own late father, Be Sure to Share is undoubtedly the most mainstream-friendly title of the maverick director's career. As Sono himself puts it, his previous films are "hard rock", while Be Sure to Share is "acoustic". What seems like an anomaly, however, actually fits right in with Sono's long-running themes, none the least because the story's protagonist, a young man named Shiro from Toyokawa, is clearly based on the director. Be Sure to Share brings Sono full circle back to his first feature, so much so that felt like he was "making his debut [film] again".

I am Sono Sion!!

Sono Sion was born in 1961 in the city of Toyokawa, a setting that would appear regularly in his films. Raised in a strict household, Sono rebelled against his teacher parents as a teenager and ran away to Tokyo where he briefly joined a cult. At 17 when most people of similar age were worrying about school and exams, Sono was already a published poet with his works appearing in noted literary magazines like Gendaishi Techo and Eureka. Though Sono is now known first and foremost as a filmmaker, his career as an avant-garde poet is no less significant. Critics have even compared Sono to Hagiwara Sakutaro, the father of modern Japanese colloquial poetry, describing him as the "jeans-wearing Hagiwara Sakutaro".

Appropriately enough, it is poetry that led Sono to film. When Sono expanded his poetry to different places and media, such as writing on walls, he used a camera to record his poetry, which in turn inspired him to pursue filmmaking as another form of creative expression. He dropped out of Hosei University to make 8mm short films, making his PIA Film Festival debut in 1985 with I Am Sono Sion!!, a 30-minute experimental short starring himself and his poetry.

To Sono, what connects poetry and film is "the power of speech", kotoba no chikara. Given Sono's background, it is only natural that his films and filmmaking style are often described as "poetic" - indeed HKAFF's Q&A program with him is titled "The Violence and Poetics: Sion Sono" - but he himself is wary of the word. In common usage the word "poetic" has become a synonym for "beautiful", but Sono emphasizes that poetics cannot be boiled down to beauty and ugliness.

From Toyokawa With Love

After I Am Sono Sion!!, Sono returned to PIA in 1987 with Otoko no Hanado and won the grand prize. As the recipient of the 4th PFF Scholarship, he was able to release his first 16mm feature Bicycle Sighs in 1990. Sono wrote, directed, and starred in the loopy coming-of-age tale set in his hometown. In the film, he plays an underachieving high school graduate named Shiro, which is similar to Sono's own given name of Shion. Left in Toyokawa with his pal Keita (Sugiyama Masahiro), Shiro wants to complete an 8mm movie they started in high school about a baseball team of base runners turned invisible by a secret government machine. Sono's film within the film is slightly more understandable than Bicycle Sighs itself, which lets its characters freely brood, struggle, and self-destruct amid baffling narrative jumps, abstract symbolism, and artistic references.

Sono's second feature, The Room (1994), is a black-and-white picture about a killer (Maro Akaji) searching for a room in a desolate Tokyo. Like Bicycle Sighs, The Room traveled far on the festival circuit, if not at the box office. Sono's works for the next few years continued in the experimental and arthouse vein, with some pink eiga dues thrown in. His lesser known early films include Keiko Desukedo (1997), a portrait of a lonely, time-obsessed Tokyo waitress (Suzuki Keiko) coping with her father's death; Dankon - The Man (1998), an urban tale about a serial killer and a gay police officer; the trippy documentary Utsushimi (2000); and 0cm4 (2001), starring Nagase Masatoshi as a colorblind man whose world drastically changes after his condition is cured. Sono also made acting appearances in Uchida Eiichi's I Hate You... Not (1991) and Ishii Teruo's Blind Beast vs. Dwarf (2001).

The World of Suicide Club & Noriko's Dinner Table

After a decade of experimental filmmaking, Sono changed the game and his career in 2001 with Suicide Club, which remains the director's most representative and well-known work. Anyone who's seen the film is unlikely to forget the shocking opening scene of 54 schoolgirls holding hands and joyfully jumping in front of an incoming train to a glorious bloodbath death. The heady suspense thriller about a suicide epidemic linked to a mysterious cult and a sugary pop song won Sono fame, notoriety, and scores of awards and fans around the world.

"Outsiders often think that Japan is a peaceful society with no war, but the country has a very high suicide rate, around 30,000 per year," Sono observes, "which is a kind of war in itself... Society may appear peaceful, but lots of daily friction and pressure create problems that lead to suicide." With Suicide Club, he wages war against Japan's hidden war, tearing at the country's suicide problem and peaceful facade. The result is a scathing, contemplative indictment against youth alienation, familial breakdown, social malaise, and pop culture submission that also thoroughly entertains with an investigative suspense framework, off-the-wall philosophizing, and some stomach-turning scenes of abuse and bloodshed backdropped by very catchy music.

Suicide Club's 2005 follow-up Noriko's Dinner Table continues these themes with the unsettling saga of a family's derailing. The timeline of Noriko's Dinner Table is concurrent to Suicide Club, but the two films are largely independent of each other in storyline and characters save for slight crossovers. By situating these two separate stories in the same world, Sono reinforces the message of society being afflicted by problems that go beyond one isolated incident or two.

Winner of the Don Quijote award at the 2005 Karlovy International Film Festival, Noriko's Dinner Table is clearly inspired by Sono's own youth. The eponymous protagonist is a 17-year-old girl (Fukiishi Kazue) who is disconnected from her family and decides to escape her hometown of Toyokawa. She runs off to Tokyo and falls under the spell of online buddy Kumiko (Tsugumi), who runs a cult-like family rental service. Divided into four chapters with first-person voice-over narration from Noriko, Kumiko, Noriko's sister (Yoshitaka Yuriko), and Noriko's father (Mitsuishi Ken) who tries too late to save the family, the slow-burning feature harrowingly chronicles Noriko's loss of self, and her family's dreadful unraveling. In comparison to Suicide Club, Noriko's has less violence save for its impressively blood-splattered climax.

Into a Hazardous Dream

Between Suicide Club and Noriko's Dinner Table, Sono made two less well-known films about young men teetering on the edge of self-realization and self-destruction. Shot in 2002 but not released until 2006, Hazard is a gritty urban adventure about small-time hoodlums spiraling into big-time trouble in New York. A young Odagiri Joe plays the innocent abroad, a bored college student who travels to inner city New York in search of danger and excitement, not unlike Noriko's flight in Noriko's Dinner Table. Hazard is one of Odagiri's earliest film outings, but for better or worse it's Japanese-Canadian actor Jai West who steals the show as the hyperactive, scenery-chewing, motor-mouth basketcase thug that pushes Hazard into almost parody territory.

Into a Dream follows the off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness journey of a bit actor (Tanaka Tetsushi) whose relationships and sense of self begin to fall apart after a suspected case of STD. Returning home for a reunion, he becomes increasingly lost in bizarre dreams in which his family and friends are terrorists and his reality are his dreams. Music often plays a key and recurring role in Sono's films, like the brainwashing pop of Suicide Club and Love Exposure. In the case of Into a Dream, even the film's title itself is taken from the song the protagonist sings throughout the film, Inoue Yosui's Yume no Naka e, familiar to many as the closing theme of the popular anime series Kare Kano.

Compared to the sensationalistic films that precede and follow, Hazard and Into a Dream are more grounded, and take on a documentary-like aesthetic at times with long takes, close shots, and hand-held camera, but both films are unsettled by absurdist elements that invade the characters' and the audience's grasp on reality. The films hark back to the oblique coming-of-age narrative of Bicycle Sighs, where realistic ambitions and anxieties manifest as increasingly unrealistic and disorienting scenarios. This storytelling style is a common motif in Sono's films, spinning the familiar into the outlandish to bring out the underlying absurdities and hypocrisies of individual, familial, and societal interactions.

If not for the presence of Odagiri Joe, Hazard and Into a Dream might have slipped even further under the radar. As is, it took four years for Hazard to get released. Sandwiched between Strange Circus and Exte: Hair Extensions, Sono's youth film Kikyu Club, Sonogo ("Balloon Club, Afterwards") did not fare much better. The coming-of-age drama about a group of balloon club members bidding farewell to their youth after the death of a friend received only a very limited theatrical release in Japan in 2006.

Ero-Guro Nonsense

Sono's films are often described as "ero-guro", or erotic-grotesque nonsense, art characterized by deviant eroticism, decadence, and the bizarre. This aesthetic is most apparent in his 2005 erotic horror Strange Circus. The repulsive yet rapturous story begins with a rotting family headed by a domineering principal (Oguchi Hiroshi) who rapes and ravages his wife (Miyazaki Masumi) and young daughter (Kuwana Rie). Mother and daughter then turn against each other as identities blur and jealous rivalry escalates into murder. This unsavory opening tale of sexual abuse, however, turns out to be the burgeoning book of a mysterious wheelchair-bound writer (Miyazaki Masumi again) with skeletons in her closet that point back to her grisly novel.

Like Into a Dream, Strange Circus blurs dream and reality though with far more twisted characters and to far more gruesome effect. The film's stunning art direction and set design contrast the mayhem and madness with beautiful cavernous rooms, walls dripping in red, and Grand Guignol-inspired circus nightmares. Moral decay is matched by visual decadence, innocence lost by gorgeous macabre, making Strange Circus the most aesthetically striking and possibly most psychologically disturbing entry of Sono's filmography.

Prior to Be Sure to Share, Exte: Hair Extensions could be considered Sono's most commercial offering, a horror film with popular actress Kuriyama Chiaki in the leading role. Sono's cheeky 2007 foray into J-horror sends up the vengeful long-haired female spectre by turning the hair itself into the vengeful spectre. Exte cleverly subverts and parodies genre tropes while also serving enough scares to pass as legitimate J-horror fare for those less familiar with Sono's ways.

Dramatically and deliberately shifting tones from one thread to another, the film weaves together a chirpy hairdresser (Kuriyama) with her sadistic older sister (Tsugumi from Noriko's Dinner Table), her abused niece (Sato Miku), a creepy coroner with a hair fetish (Osugi Ren) - and killer hair extensions. Exte has not much in terms of gore but plenty of grotesque, replacing blood with larger-than-life locks that spill and spout from various orifices. Amid the over-the-top hairy happenings and spectacular visual effects, the real terror lies somewhere closer to Sono's staple themes, the struggle between sisters over the well-being of an abused young girl.

The Art of Perversion

Clocking in at an epic four hours, Love Exposure is the ultimate Sono Sion film, the apex of everything that came before. Though one could label the film's length as self-indulgence, it is also indicative of Sono's refusal to be held back by convention or commercial concerns: "A novel can be released in two parts" - common practice in Asia - "so why should a film be constricted to a certain length?" To the director's credit, the four hours go quickly. Winning the Caligari Film Award and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, Love Exposure packs in everything Sono and some extra, giddily skewing sex, religion, family, and perversion to ultimately tell an offbeat romantic story about loving to the point of madness.

The first half of Love Exposure mainly revolves around enthusiastic teenage upskirt photographer Yu (Nishijima Takahiro of pop group AAA in his film debut) who sins wholeheartedly for the sake of confessing to his unhinged priest father (Watabe Atsuro). Yu's adventures unfold with manga-like panache, applying irreverent humor, exaggerated reverence, and inventive acrobatics to the art of panty-peeking. When the love bug bites Yu, he gets lovey-dovey eyes and an embarrassing crotch bulge straight out of an anime, and resorts to cross-dressing as Lady Scorpion - a nod to the 70s exploitation series Female Prisoner Scorpion - to win the love of his life, lesbian schoolgirl Yoko (Mitsushima Hikari).

As is apt to happen in Sono's films, Love Exposure goes haywire after the honeymoon, and in a fashion very similar to Noriko's Dinner Table. In fact, the second half of Love Exposure often feels like a bigger and better retelling of Noriko's, right down to the hotpot climax. The story backtracks through voice-over narration to bring different characters to the same turning point, and then pushes everyone down a hill through the manipulations of a cult recruiter (Ando Sakura).

Sono's cautionary fascination with cults is nothing new, but Love Exposure adds Catholicism to the hit list by turning the rite of confession into a compulsive motivation for sin, and casting the father as a hypocritical, weak-minded, philandering priest. Asked about his thoughts on religion, Sono explains that he likes the figure of Christ, but not the institution of Christianity and organized religion. "If there was a Christ fan club," he says with a straight face, "I would join."

Be Sure to Not Share Tears

With death-themed films like Departures, Tokyo Tower - Mom & Me, and Sometimes Dad, and pure love romances regularly topping the box office in Japan, Sono is quick to draw the line: "I don't like to make movies about death." Sono has no interest in attracting audiences and making people cry with a tearjerker or terminal illness drama. "Everyone is moved by different things, so it's strange to make a film that expects people to cry and be touched by the same moments." Instead, Be Sure to Share came about as a reaction to the death of the director's own father one year ago.

The father figure has played a key role in many of Sono's films, and with Be Sure to Share he quietly reflects on his relationship and misgivings with his own father. Sono takes away the societal background and concentrates on the experiences of one family, creating a small, personal, and realistic drama very different from his previous films while touching on the same themes of communication and desperation.

Bringing Sono back to his hometown of Toyokawa, Be Sure to Share follows a father (veteran actor-director Okuda Eiji) and son (Akira of pop group EXILE, looking almost unrecognizable in his film debut) as they try to make up for lost time in their final days. On a narrative level, perhaps the most remarkable difference between Be Sure to Share and other dramas about coping with parental death is that protagonist Shiro, while trying to come to terms with his father's terminal illness, learns that he himself has cancer. Realistic if not-so-rosy memories of years of estranged relations give way to Shiro's frantic desire to realize a father-son fishing trip that never was.

With Be Sure to Share, Sono wants to avoid the cliche of simply equating death as tragedy for the person dying and tears for the people living when in fact death is a certainty for everyone. By adding another character with terminal illness, he stresses that "those who die will die, but those who are alive will also die". The film's focus is thus not on death but communication and reconciliation, captured by the title Be Sure to Share. As promised, Be Sure to Share is not overtly tearjerking but it is affecting on many levels, proving that the director is perfectly capable of making a "normal" movie if he so desires.

More Chaos to Come

If out of Sono's last two films, one is the apex and the other the anomaly, then the maverick director is ostensibly approaching a turning point in his career with his next film. Certainly, film fans around the world are very interested on what the director will serve up next.

Sono has not one but two Japanese films beginning production this year, and next year he will shoot his first English-language production Lords of Chaos, based on Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind's book about the early nineties Norwegian death metal scene. It will be interesting to see how an idiosyncratic director like Sono, who has always written his own script and made a point to go against the standard, carries over to Western Cinema, especially since he'll be working from an adapted script and sharing credit with multiple screenwriters. Sono assures, however, that Lords of Chaos will be shot the same way as his previous films. The real-life story about a radicalized black metal subculture inspiring a wave of church burnings and murders definitely sounds like a ready-made Sono Sion film. Whether it's Lords of Chaos or one of the Japanese films that arrives first, audiences can at least be sure that it will be different, shocking, and coming to a film festival near you.

Interviewer: Sanwei

Special Thanks to 2009 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival

Published November 12, 2009

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