Strange Circus 奇妙なサーカス (2003)

Strange Circus Mitsuko Genki Banner

Strange Circus                                                           Strange Circus Japanese Film Poster

Japanese Title: 奇妙なサーカス

Romaji: Kimyou na Sa-kasu

Japanese Release Date: 24th May, 2003

Running Time: 83 mins.

Director: Sion Sono

Writer: Sion Sono

Starring: Masumi Miyazaki, Issei Ishida, Rie Kuwana, Mai Takahashi, Tomorowo Taguchi, Hiroshi Oguchi

I love all of Sono’s films. Not equally though. As powerful as I find his dramas like Himizu and Noriko’s Dinner Table, I really loooooove his horror films like Suicide Circle and Cold Fish. This is the first time that I have watched Strange Circus, having only read a great review for it on Goregirl’s blog but I can safely say that this is one of Sono’s best.

Mitsuko Ozawa (Kuwana) is a young girl whose father Gozo (Oguchi) is the principal of the school she attends. Her existence is one of fear as her father is a sexual predator. At first she is forced to see her father having sex with her mother Sayuri (Miyazaki) but is soon sexually abused herself. This causes an insane jealousy to develop in her mother which leads to a deadly accident… Or does it? The above nightmare Mitsuko suffers is part of novel written by successful author Taeko (Miyazaki). She has taken on a new assistant named Yuji Tamiya (Ishida) who will expose dark secrets.

Strange Circus is from the tradition of ero-guro nansensu, a tradition where the erotic and grotesque go hand in hand to create perverse erotic fantasies. It is best exemplified by the writings of Edogawa Rampo who has been a major influence on writers and filmmakers in Japan and whose stories like The Attic Stroller have been turned into movies themselves.

Sono is a filmmaker with the nerve to match the stories with style and create something memorable. His films are rarely subtle and this one goes all out in enrapturing the viewer with its complex, weaving plot and alluringly beautiful visuals. Strange Circus is definitely erotic and grotesque for it is a disturbing fantasy/nightmare that involves incest, perversity and mental breakdown and it is told as a horrific mystery that toys with the viewer who has to see characters endure some truly terrible times. Or do they?

Strange Circus Mitsuko and Gozo Discuss the Cello Case

Let’s play an interesting game.

Strange Circus is always like a strange fantasy mystery. It is told in a fragmented manner split between schoolgirl Mitsuko and writer Taeko. The complex script flashes between past and present, reality and fantasy. It would seem a simple idea that the strange circus of the title is a retreat for Mitsuko from the perverse desires of her father but this is too simplistic a reading as proven with the emergence of the erotic novel Taeko writes.

We then play the game of the narrative puzzle. Surely then, this is a case of us witnessing the dark horrors of Taeko’s psyche all coming to the fore as it fragments.

Strange Circus Yuji

Trying to piece together the plot is a natural thing to do and totally pointless. Struggle to make plot points part of a coherent narrative landscape and that landscape will shift.This is the non-real world where we are being lead by questionable narrators through opulent surroundings which hide characters who revel in dark secrets and indulge in torturous mind-games, self-mutilation and wild sex.

As extreme as that sounds (especially the predatory father), it is done tastefully. Sono uses many techniques to suggest abuse like having a narrator allude to it while a jump cut leads to a different image. The most prominent is switching the actress Miyazaki for Kuwana during moments of abuse. This will take the form of a match-cut or a simple movement of camera, the actresses switching clothes and hair-styles – Miyazaki will suddenly have Mitsuko’s style of bangs framing her face. Other techniques include using dialogue from the two and overlaying it. This is more than just style as it adds to the narrative mystery unfolding but the style does not hurt. It is painfully beautiful.

As I grew up I saw traps everywhere

The lavish sets are incredibly beautiful, split between reality and fantasy.

Mitsuko lives in a clinical and expensive mansion and attends an equally clinical and expensive school. Behind the immaculate Strange Circus Schoolfurnishings the vilest of abuse takes place. The father uses these places as cul-de-sacs for his numerous sexual exploits which, rather horrifically, soon drag Mitsuko in. There is an eminent disharmony between the gloss and reality. The décor of normality is a full of traps for Mitsuko and perpetually under threat from the mental perceptions of characters wrought by the dark traumas endured by them which gives rise to the strange circus of the title.

The strange circus is like a decadent dream.

Threatening and forbidding? Maybe.

Elegant and dandyish? Definitely.

The strange circus is peopled by an audience that looks like it has become bored of a fin-di-siècle Parisian brothel and decided to spill into the nightmare psyche of Mitsuko, so gaudily dressed and enraptured by morbidly extravagant and erotic sights on stage which reflect what Mitsuko goes through.

The two environments combine in moments of great psychological stress much like Silent Hill. We can witness Mitsuko walking around a normal school but the minute she leaves a classroom after her father has had his incestuous paws on her we are suddenly in corridors where walls and floors are covered with red threads and paint and teachers are dressed sleazily.

Strange Circus Class

As the film progresses and we head into Taeko’s section of the narrative, the divide between fantasy, nightmare and reality break and run into each other more often. Taeko’s house is a ludicrously schizophrenic sight with walls painted red, plastered with papers and posters, strange furniture and a mysterious room which, compared to the rest of the sets we have seen, is dirty and unvarnished full of trash and evidently holding a dark secret. We know now that we have been ensnared in the vicious narrative maze of Taeko and all we can do is sit back and watch as Yuji works it out. The ending is, to put it bluntly, insane and insanely brilliant. I will say no more.

To have a spirit that’s as clear as the sky, that’s the important thing

The film’s complex script requires actors who can balance different aspects and traits of their characters and reveal them. The actors all fit into their surroundings with aplomb Strange Circus Sayuri Sexmost especially Masumi Miyazaki who holds the camera with her beauty and acting. She is called upon to take part in graphic sex scenes that are hot (as in, look at what you’re missing boys!, hot) and she shows the depth of her resolve in her performance, the way she can portray slatternly and psychotic, the sense of febrile tension and fractured persona. She is primal, fearful and aggressive. She slips into the role of a beast and victim. Also strong is Rie Kuwana who plays the fearful innocent that is Mitsuko well. Mai Takahashi is suitably demented malevolent teen with a penchant for self-mutilation. The grizzled Hiroshi Oguchi is absolutely foul looking as the father while Tomorowo Taguchi is amusingly louche. Ishida, for his part, is suitably mysterious.

When I finish a story I always go for a walk

I think this is one of the most darkly twisted yet entertaining and gripping films to have come from Japan. The surreal imagery, great acting, nightmarish narrative and visual beauty are combined to make a truly erotic and grotesque horror thriller that surprised and shocked me at every turn.

5/5                                                        Strange Circus DVD Case

Special Features:                              

Strange Days: Making of Documentary

Original Trailer

Trailer Reel


A good set of extras thanks mainly to the “Making of Documentary” which shows us the shooting of the film, excerpts from the script and script read-throughs, the perspective of the actors on the film, and, most importantly, Sono’s take on the film and on the way he makes films.

I have been watching horror films for years but have yet to suffer a nightmare related to them… until a few days ago. I guess with Halloween approaching my subconscious is acting up. In any case Tetsuo: The Iron Man was the source.

Tetsuo Bride of FrankensteinThe dream was set in a country manor and there was a wedding taking place. I was exploring the place when I noticed a woman dressed as a bride shambling down one of the halls. I had a bad feeling about her. Her head whipped around and she growled. Her face was studded with metal. I stumbled  back down the corridor, my arm flapping uselessly behind me to ward her off but she took a hold of my hand which felt awfully exposed and at that point I woke up moaning “No! Nooo!” Although I was initially groggy I burst into laughter as I recognised immediately that the dream had been inspired by a title I gave to a Tetsuo screen-cap… The Bride of Frankenstein. It was 4:00 in the morning and so I watched a bit of BBC News and Talking Books. Paul Auster was on. I have recently been given a book of his by another blogger.

13 thoughts on “Strange Circus 奇妙なサーカス (2003)

  1. goregirl

    Wow! You really enjoyed this! Strange Circus is quite the trip! Alas, while I did not give it a perfect score (I am pretty stingy with the 5/5’s) there is a ton to admire here. The visuals are just stunning (I was particularly fond of those burlesque-esque circus scenes) and that ending is crazy! Masumi Miyazaki is remarkable…and gorgeous.

    1. Ah, I was surprised with the gorgeousness of the visuals and was sucked in. The use of music was just icing on the cake. Sono really outdone himself with this one. I use a lot more 5/5s (so much so, I wonder if their constant use has diluted them).

  2. Well, this certainly sounds like a strange conundrum of a film. Not quite sure if I would enjoy it given some of the content explored which is a shame given the fact that it sounds so visually stunning. I’m not discounting it though. I do like the poster – for some reason it puts me in mind of one of the shots from American Beauty.
    Re your comment about using ratings – I must admit that I used to give my reviews a score but have stopped doing so simply because when I looked back I realised I wasn’t being very objective. So basically if I finished a book and enjoyed the end I’d probably give it a high rating such as an ‘A’ but then I might absolutely love the next book I read – and so how could I rate that any higher? Then I found that I almost started to have to compare things against each other – anyway, it became tiresome so it went!
    Lynn 😀

    1. Reading your comment made me add a little more to the review just to make clear that while the content is dark and disturbing it is tastefully explored, so thanks for the reply!

      I cannot remember where I read/watched/heard a comment about ratings at the end of reviews but it seems like readers get disappointed when there isn’t one. I’ll try and make clear in the review what a film is like and justify the score at the end.

  3. Hi Jason.
    No worries. I always read your reviews. I don’t always comment but that doesn’t mean I didn’t put in an appearance!
    in terms of ratings, I can’t deny that I always looks for them on other reviewers sites and appreciate them. But, I find them hard to figure out on my own reviews. I think some people have a very calculated (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) type of way of reviewing something but I didn’t so I started to find it confusing looking at my own ratings! Not a good thing. I certainly wasn’t trying to be negative to you 🙂 this is just my own personal experience and you should continue as you do now. Regarding this film, i’m certainly not going to dismiss it, I can’t deny that there are aspects of this film that I don’t particularly like the sounds of, but it still sounds intriguing as though maybe it isn’t as it first appears.
    Lynn 😀

    1. I didn’t take any of it as criticism and I appreciate every comment I get, especially from people with great taste in films like you! I’ve seen blogs that have metrics for figuring out scores but I just stick to a simple thing like a scale of 5.

      Strange Circus is great – 5/5 😉

  4. It’s a very impressive review on the Strange Circus. I can feel how twisted the story is and somehow intrigued by it…but I am not sure I want to see it, I like thriller but it seems that it also has many erotic scenes.

    1. I can see why some might be put-off by the subject matter. There is a lot of steamy sex (all involving adults) so if you find that off-putting then this might not be the film for you.

  5. Great write up as ever!

    You were clearly more enthused about this film than I was although I didn’t hate it. I’m not overly fond of extreme and heavily surreal material but being a Sono film I had to see it, albeit with one eye open as to being aware of what to expect. As a psychological drama it is astounding but, as you have already conceded, the sexual/incestuous content is a subjective concern.

    If you are interested my review is here: 😉

    1. Thanks 🙂

      I was blown away by the ambitious script, the gorgeous mise en scene and the way that Sono managed to craft one of the most beautiful, tastefully dark, surreal and mind-bending cinematic experiences I have enjoyed in a long while.

  6. SPOILER ALERT Ok.. Indeed a nice review, I read it after I watched the film, while looking up more information regarding I hope it is not too obvious and that I am not making a fool of myself by asking.. but because I watched it with the help of Greek subs, I really lost me at the end. SPOILER coming up
    It’s obvious that the writer is the mother of the molested child, who was indeed watching her daughter being molested, yet enjoyed it dearly, same time developed a jealousy against the child, for obvious reasons, and if I am getting this right, at some point she pushed her daughter down the stairs, the child services took the girl to a home, but she.. coz she could not stand that she allowed this to happen and all, goes into a state of a combination of brain malfunctions and fabricates an alternate reality, which is thoroughly, explained by her book.
    So in reality, her daughter became a son.
    The mother went apeshit and crippled her sick husband, but kept him in the cello case.
    The son locates the sick parents, and kills the mother by cutting off her legs and finally, decapitating her. Or did he? Did he or his mother turn the headmaster to a woman also – in addition to all the rest they did to him? Is that what I saw?
    Was the man really Mitsuko?

    And most of all – what up with the cirque du freak show ending, why would the headmaster pop out, kill his wife while the female and male child versions seem really happy about it? In who’s mind is this crap happening? Is it safe to assume that is happening in the wife’s tormented head, while she is remembering, but then again .. how could she have remembered if the scene with her new son, in her old house didn’t really happen as it is implied when she wakes up without her wheelchair somewhere else, for a moment.

    My review: Obviously the message here is, doing sexual stuff to your children is really bad, and people who do it, as well as the ones that know about it and keep silent, coz of personal interest or lust, should be left without parts, including genitals in a suitcase till they rot over and over again. It is brutal punishment, and one might argue it’s outcome, but me not being that one, I agree, and I would help that kid with that punishment if really a case of such a vindictive kid to come out of such a scenario was plausible. Unfortunately such punishment rarely happens only to a very very small % of those monsters. Definitely not by their molested children.
    I would say it is a good film, coz it brings up this topic, that is actually a much bigger thing than we all thought before the Internet came. And I feel.. I don’t know why.. that it is not really discussed a lot.. as if it is a worldwide shame, that such a big number of people are aroused by children, there I said it. I am against it, and I like the fact that this movie, is about it, Like, chasing illegal child porn traders or sharers is but a small fraction of that huge problem, why so many? What’s causing it? How do we get through to those afflicted people before they become real monsters, so we can save both Mitsukos parents and the girl itself.
    Thanks for reading this, and for any answer you might come up with, regarding the story, thanks in advance.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read the review and leave a comment! It is a tricky film to nail down but trying to do so makes it very engaging. It has been a long time since I last watched this film and it left a strong impression on me I’ll watch it again once I have free time but for now, your questions!


      Mitsuko is indeed Sayuri’s assistant, the mysterious man who is obsessed with her and looks after her and in the end the person who tortures and finishes off Gozo and then deals with his mother by making her finally accept her guilt and the knowledge that she knew she was the villain of the story which is shown when she stands up in the bedroom without the wheelchair at the end. To escape the witnessing the horrible fate she is going to endure Sayuri conjures up the circus she has been constantly writing and imagining. This is a way of avoiding reality. All of the characters who have abused her and who she abused show up to see her off and then it’s curtains! So yeah, that last bit is in her head. There’s a lot of switching between reality and fantasy going on as Sayuri’s reality comes crashing down and she seeks shelter in fantasy.

      Child abuse is a particularly evil crime and its impact is devastating. It’s a much a psychological issue as anything else and I don’t know what the answer is to counter it other than locking up perpetrators and creating a world where people stop acting on base desires and are more empathetic, honourable and responsible, protective towards human life and children especially, where people have powers and protections and nobody can abuse their position without someone raising the alarm. Even that answer is flawed and I hope there’s a solution at some point.

      That subject matter has made some of the most terrifying and emotionally devastating films from Korea and Japan and they don’t have to be straight-up horror.

      Strange Circus takes that difficult subject matter like that and makes a compelling film that makes the audience examine the narrative and their morals and that’s an amazing thing to do. At no point was it overly exploitative and the fact that it still sparks debate makes it one of those films that will endure.

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