This year TheYoungFolks is proud to cover the JAPAN CUTS film festival, a celebration of the best of contemporary Japanese cinema. Additional information, screening schedules, and contact information for the festival can be found HERE. We continue with a roundup of the three films about and by the infamous director Sion Sono being shown. You can keep up with our continuing coverage of JAPAN CUTS 2016 HERE.
THE SION SONO (2016)
54 teenage schoolgirls join hands before jumping into the path of an oncoming train, their guts and viscera spewing forth over horrified bystanders. A young woman in a white nightgown slides across a floor pooled with blood as if it was an ice skating rink. A gust of wind slices the top half of a bus off, beheading all but one passenger. An army of yakuza punks battle in the streets with samurai swords to the incessant beat of hip-hop. All of these are among the most notorious and controversial images in recent Japanese cinema. And all of them stem from the mind of one man: Sion Sono.
Enfant terrible, provocateur, pervert. Sono has worn many labels over the years. But in Arata Oshima’s new documentary The Sion Sono, the only label he seems to care about is his own name. The Sion Sono sees a sometimes genius, a sometimes madman, struggling to reconcile his own identity as he looks back at a considerable career while plotting his future. The film documents the early production stages of his new sci-fi film The Whispering Star. We see him attending a Shinto ceremony to bless the new production, lead the first production crew meetings, advise in set constructions, and even coordinate location shooting in the radioactive ruins of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. It’s a curious glance into the creative process of an enigma. We get the sense that each of his films began as a simple idea, an image, or even a poem—one old colleague recounts how the outline of one of Sono’s films was literally just a collection of a few dozen poems. Anyone who has seen Sono’s cult hits Suicide Club (2001) or Tokyo Tribe (2014) can testify to his willingness to value shocking images or brash aesthetics over cohesive (or coherent) storytelling. In one telling interview he mentions how he prefers producing a greater quantity of films than focusing more intently on their quality:
“Quality makes people cautious. So I go for quantity so I can advance.”
But advance to what? At 54 years old he shows no signs of slowing down. In 2015 alone he directed five films and a TV movie. These are mid-50s Roger Corman numbers, not the numbers of an aging artistic revolutionary. Yet he doesn’t seem satisfied. He seems no closer to his goals as a filmmaker than he was when he started in the 80s.
My biggest problem with The Sion Sono is that it seems to have no interest in answering any of the questions it brings up. Who is Sion Sono? To colleagues he’s a genius, to the Japanese film establishment he’s a persona non grata, to his family he’s a petty tyrant. Oshima quietly observes Sono’s long, meandering tirades about creativity and his unfair treatment at the hands of the Japanese public (“There’s a tradition in Japan of belittling the unorthodox”). But none of it adds up to anything. It seems to suggest that things are going exactly according to plan for Sono. But for a man who seems literally incapable of not making films, the reality must be much different…and much more interesting.
THE WHISPERING STAR (2015)
A strip of film reel. A painting easel and brushes. Dead butterflies. A pen without a cap. A cigarette butt. A fishing lure. A bent, empty paper cup. A photo of a young girl in a white dress. Each of these random objects sit in bulky white boxes at the back of a spaceship shaped like a rural Japanese house with twin rocket engines strapped to the back. The cramped interior resembles a run-down tenement: leaky faucets, dirty walls, ceiling lights choked with the bodies of dead insects. At the front sits 6-7 MAH Em, the onboard computing device shaped like a vintage radio, which controls the ship ferrying courier Yoko Suzuki to her next destination. It speaks with the voice of a small boy. When it malfunctions it “gets sick” and sprays foam everywhere. Such things are the only breaks in the monotony of Suzuki’s decades-long voyage to deliver the white boxes with their bizarre contents. Teleportation exists in this universe. But as machines have come to replace humanity, as mankind has become an endangered species, the few remaining people prefer old-fashioned delivery service. So Suzuki continues her voyage, stopping off at nondescript planets in empty galaxies to give strange boxes to desolate people. What possible reasons could these people have for such useless bric-à-brac? Why are they willing to wait so long for such junk? She does not know. She does not care.
Sion Sono’s The Whispering Star is a triumph. Watching it I was struck with a sense of cohesion I’ve always felt cheated of in Sono’s other films, an odd observation considering that the film essentially has no plot. But that’s its genius: by abandoning a traditional narrative, Sono’s scattered scenes and vignettes counter-intuitively composite an undeniable whole. The Whispering Star is composed of the moments between moments: the fiddling with malfunctioning equipment, the cleaning of floors, silent marches through the ruins of silent planets. Much like Wim Wenders, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Andrei Tarkovsky, Sono seems interested here with the use of empty time and silence. The comparison with Tarkovsky is particularly apt. The planets she visits were almost all filmed on location in the ruins of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The barren vistas, decrepit ruins, and discomforting pastoral landscapes seem to mimic those from The Stalker (1979). But Sono also uses these settings in the same contemplative vein as the great Russian master—as existential crucibles, as extensions of forgotten zeitgeists, as purveyors of simple, heart-breaking beauty. Sono’s ingenious repurposing of found objects and locations as retro trappings of an incomprehensibly advanced sci-fi future echo Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965). Indeed, the two would make an excellent double feature.
The Whispering Star is unlike anything I’ve ever seen from Sono. I keep comparing it to other films and directors, but that’s merely because I struggle to summon the proper vocabulary to describe it. The film is its own beast, singular and absorbing. The final ten minutes which take place largely in the intricate set we see being built in Arata Oshima’s documentary The Sion Sono are among the most vital in recent Japanese cinema. With just a corridor of paper walls, a few props, and a handful of extras, Sono created one of the most striking film sets I can remember. That isn’t hyperbole. It’s a statement of fact.
LOVE & PEACE (2015)
Sion Sono’s Love & Peace made me feel like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff and splattering against the ground into a pancake. In just under two hours he crams so many disparate genres and emotions into one story, it’s remarkable the film didn’t burst at the seams. It begins as a Terry Gilliam-esque drama about Ryoichi Suzuki, a nerve-riddled salaryman who dreams of being a rock star. Such is his awkwardness that even strangers in the street stop and point as he walks by. In a fit of loneliness, he buys a pet turtle he spontaneously names “Pikadon”—a Japanese portmanteau used to describe atomic bomb blasts. He confesses his hopes and dreams to his new friend, cherishing and loving him. But when he brings him to work, his cruel co-workers humiliate him so badly he impulsively flushes Pikadon down the toilet.
Here’s where the insanity truly begins. Try to keep up. Pikadon is rescued by a mysterious old man in the sewers who brings abandoned toys to life and gives them the power of speech. While trying to give Pikadon a pill that can make him talk, he accidentally gives him a “wish” pill. So Pikadon grows to the size of a small child, telepathically links with Ryoichi, and helps him write hit singles and become a rock star. Soon Pikadon breaks out of the sewers, gets captured by scientists, rescued by Santa Claus, and transformed into a Godzilla-sized kaiju before crashing one of Ryoichi’s concerts.
I realize everything I’ve written in the last two paragraphs seems like so much word vomit, but to Sono’s credit, he manages to make all of this material work. Well, mostly. My interest in the narrative plummeted when Ryoichi gained stardom and immediately transitioned from nebbish loser to insufferable jackass. We’ve all seen this film before. By the second half of Love & Peace, we realize we’ve become much more invested in Pikadon and his fellow inhabitants of the sewer man’s veritable Island of Misfit Toys than we’ve ever been for Ryoichi, AKA the main character. All of my fondest memories of the film come from these poor unwanteds: Maria, the toy doll who dreams of being reunited with her owner; Sulkie, a cynical black cat toy with a justifiable hatred of the outside world; all the various cats and dogs who worry that their owners won’t love them anymore now that they’re not kittens and puppies. I wanted to see more of their stories. But the one we ended up with in this film is a decent consolation prize.