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?
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.
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 furnishings 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.
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 most 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.
Strange Days: Making of Documentary
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.
The 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.