It’s a short season and it features a silly banner but I don’t care. This is a quick biography of Sion Sono and I hope to review some of his works in the coming week. I want to write about a number of directors and since this is Sion Sono Season he goes first.
Sion Sono has had a varied career starting as an avant-garde poet before ditching a course at Hosei University for a career in underground filmmaking although he never turns his back on poetry which will recur in his early films. In 1987 he won the Grand Prize at the PIA Film Festival (PFF) for his film A Man’s Hanamichi. The PFF is designed to discover and support new filmmakers and following his win he received a fellowship with PIA and wrote, directed and starred in numerous films which contained underachievers, serial killers and other outsiders. These films regularly toured the international festival circuit and helped establish his name.
It wasn’t until the 2001 film Suicide Circle when he truly became a well-known cult director. Suicide Circle (which has special effects by Tokyo Gore Police director Yoshihiro Nishimura) is a satirical film dealing with pop culture, mass suicides, and a bewildered middle aged police detective played by Ryo Ishibashi (Audition) trying to understand it all while being assailed by deviants and horrific sights that challenge his perceptions. Following this success he expanded on the film’s world by taking it into different mediums such as novels and manga and a belated sequel named Noriko’s Dinner Table which was made in 2006.
Suicide Circle was a massive success and has set the tone for the rest of his films. Despite trying a gangster film (Hazard – 2005) and comedy-drama (Into a Dream – 2005), both starring Joe Odagiri (Adrift in Tokyo, Bright Future), he has continued to explore the darker side of modern Japan with a series of extreme titles including the ero-guro film Strange Circus (2005) which features sexual and mental abuse and incest, the aforementioned Noriko’s Dinner Table which deals with alienation and suicide, Exte: Hair Extensions (2007) which stars Chiaki Kuriyama (Battle Royale, Shikoku, Kill Bill) and is a far more mainstream J-horror title and then Love Exposure (2008) which stars Hikari Mitsushima (Sawako Decides) and can only be described as a religio-psycho-sexual mindmelt.
Since then he has made the drama Be Sure to Share (2009) and the extraordinary psychological horror/comedy Cold Fish (2010). Love Exposure and Cold Fish were the first two instalments of his ‘hate trilogy’ which he finished off with Guilty of Romance (2011). Although Love Exposure and Cold Fish wowed critics, Guilty of Romance received mixed reviews due to accusations that it is undisciplined and long.
While the hate trilogy is typical Sono with its dark themes, extreme situations, and violence he tackled even grimmer subject matter with his adaptation of the manga Himizu (2011) which was shot in North Eastern Japan just after the earthuake and tsunami. It got a theatrical release in Japan earlier this year and it gets its premiere in the UK at next month’s Terracotta Far East Film Festival. Soon after wrapping up filming of Himizu it was announced that he was to be married to Megumi Kagurazaka who was in Himizu and also took lead roles in Cold Fish and Guilty of Romance. His latest films are a complete contrast to each other. At the more serious end of the scale is The Land of Hope, a 3/11 drama which is on the big scale as it analyses the impact that a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown have on Japanese society by following the fortunes of two families. Despite encompassing many issues it is powerful stuff because it never loses sight of the protagonists amidst all of the destruction and even offers criticism of a society all too prepared to forget the disaster happened. His other film is Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, a film best described as entertainment. A truly insane love-letter to yakuza flicks and films in general which eschews seriousness in favour of fun as film-makers and a crime syndicate join forces to make the most stylised gangster film ever! His next project is an adaptation of the manga Tokyo Tribes.
Sion Sono is a name linked to extreme cinema with some citing him as a replacement for Takashi Miike who has moved steadily into mainstream of Japanese film-making but that reading is a little too simplistic for my taste. Although he shares the trait of being prolific and indulging in extreme cinema and focussing on outsiders most of his stories share a greater interest in everyday life and the little people who exist in it.
Even if the films take a turn into the darkest of territory with the blackest of humour and contain some of the goriest and most violent sequences on modern celluloid the emotions, thinking and actions of the characters remain absolutely believable. And that is what makes his films so challenging. No matter how horrific a film might become we still recognise parts of ourselves, the neglected shadow selves and the bits we try to suppress or wish that we had access to. The horror of living in an atomised society where we don’t really know the darkness that exists in ourselves and others.The absurdity of life.
Or maybe I’m reading too much into his films. Whatever the case I find his films are much more interesting and enjoyable than most output from Hollywood, Europe, the Middle East anywhere else you want to bring up. You can keep your Separations and Descendants. I’m too busy having fun with demonic hair and demented suicide pop music.