The Sion Sono 園子温という生きもの Dir: Arata Oshima (2016)

Jonetsu tairiku Presents Sono Shion to iu ikimono    

Sono Shion to iu ikmono Film Poster
Sono Shion to iu ikmono Film Poster

園子温という生きもの Sono Shion to iu ikmono 

Running Time: 97 mins.

Release Date: May 14th, 2016

Director: Arata Oshima

Writer: N/A

Starring: Sion Sono, Shota Sometani, Fumi Nikaido, Megumi Kagurazaka, Eri, Naoto Tanobe, Takuji Yasuoka,

Website    IMDB

Third Window Films’ recent release of The Whispering Star (2016) was paired up with The Sion Sono, a documentary directed by Arata Oshima, son of legendary filmmaker Nagisa Oshima. Both films were originally released on the same day in Japan and prove to be the perfect partners for a home format release since they capture moments in the evolving career of Sion Sono, Japan’s most maverick multi-hyphante talent.

Sono is a poet, painter, writer, filmmaker, and rebel who decries convention and has taken on the role of subversive provocateur daring to tackle all manner of subjects and genres in his films. Gory horror, family drama, political and social diatribes, comedy, and everything in between have been mined to create a truly unique filmography of over 40 films and this documentary traces the origins of his work ethic, his love of films, and give a glimpse of the real character behind the cult figure.

Filmed in 2014 during the shoot for The Whispering Star, Arata Oshima gets a look behind the scenes of the production whilst also interviewing cast and crew from past films before diving headlong into Sono’s past. Through doing this we get an insight into how Sono’s work during the 90s has been utilised to create many present-day titles including, for example, seeing the storyboards he made for The Whispering Star which he created when he was 27. Through locating highlights of Sono’s career, we understand how much of a maverick he is and always was.

Shot with a handheld digital camera and with little set-up for scenes (including lighting which makes for some amusing moments as natural light is not enough to see interiors of buildings) it is exciting and intimate as we see public and private spaces. Events run from script reading through to the Fukushima shoot on The Whispering Star which shows him in Tomioka and Namie towns with his crew in the reality of a post-nuclear-meltdown environment to him taking work home in Tokyo. On set he is at his most earnest as he works together with locals and talks with them on the same level about their experiences. It is clear that he is passionate about what has happened in the area and is respected by the people who talk with emotion over seeing their story in Sono’s film, The Land of Hope. Alas, there is no real digging into why Sono is so invested in this subject. It is more about the man.

The film avoids being a hagiography by showing Sono drunk, challenging Arata Oshima on directorial choices and critiquing Japanese film culture, and being candid about his own pretentiousness and personal failures. This is coupled with direct-to-camera interviews with various people such as his first producer to give fascinating information on the man’s career.

What we get is a contradictory character, a fierce creative who naturally rebels against convention whilst also showing typically heightened Japanese restraint and care. It’s an interesting synthesis of aspects that has crafted a socially conscious and daring filmmaker with a strong desire to tell human stories in nearly every film regardless of genre.

These contradictions are best exemplified when we get interviews with the wonderful lead actors of Himizu, Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido. They talk about how Sono turned up drunk for their auditions but later on grew to be like a father figure allowing them to freely express themselves. A powerful interview is naturally given by Sono’s wife Megumi Kagurazaka who acted for him in Cold Fish. She details the weight of responsibility she carried taking on her role and how their connection grew during this emotionally challenging time in her life which was worthwhile. It naturally segues into enlightening observations on Sono’s character and how he follows his interests in a single-minded fashion and again there’s an underlying sense of Japaneseness that makes him human, his ki wo tsukau, doing things from one’s soul with passion and dedication. That and his penchant for experimentation which moves across forms and is inherent in his character.

We venture into Sono’s studio in Shimokitazawa and see him create artwork around a disturbing story about a young girl’s life-choices which sounds a lot like one of his his latest releases, Antiporno (2017). He applies paint without caution and espouses that it should be how a person lives life regardless of the mess and the chap is charismatic as he says it and a narrative around how he bucks normality settles in. As he states, it is the tradition of people in Japan to belittle the unorthodox and he goes on to proclaim, “formality is overrated”.

He has an awareness of his own brand, so to speak, but it isn’t narcissism or commercialism, it’s as a genuine firebrand artist. Calling his work on commercial films indecent jobs which he works hard on and his more personal projects as a way of getting clean again is believable after seeing him in Fukushima and he positions himself as the anti-Kawase and shadow image of Kore-eda, directors who make “literature” movies. You wonder if Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima were talking like this when they helped launch the new wave.

The most fascinating part is a dive deep into the schooldays of Sono when he returns to his hometown of Toyokawa city, Aichi Prefecture by train and we meet his friends and his sister with whom he shares a five year age gap. They introduce audiences to a collection of memories from old school essays and manga he made and sold to friends and family. The scale of artistic ambition is evident in his homemade magazine full of movie reviews covering everything from Shampoo and Rollerball to Jaws. It also features ads proclaiming himself a genius filmmaker. The creativity is charming, the confidence is astounding, it all makes sense with the benefit of hindsight.

The one frustrating thing about the documentary is Arata’s inability to nail down just why Sono is so embedded in the Fukushima issue. It is obviously something close to his heart since he has made three films and a number of art exhibition about it but that is, realistically, for a documentary focused on the issue rather than here which is about the man himself. Sono is special and this documentary does a great job of giving a glimpse as to why.

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