The Forest of Love (2019) by Sion Sono

Sion Sono is well-known for his subversive genre work, with gruesome body horror, nihilistic punk philosophy and black humour. “The Forest of Love” is a prime example of his oevre. In the same vein as “Cold Fish”, which took for inspiration a series of horrific murders, “The Forest of Love” also begins with an note that this is “Based on a True Story”, though as things progress that statement becomes harder and harder to believe. The case on which it is based is one of depraved sadism, abuse, and torture. Sono’s film manages to capture the despicable nature of the crimes, but also throws in many elements of his own creation in a bizarre blend of satire and bloody crime drama. The film begins with a young man, Shin (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), recently arrived in Tokyo meeting up with two film fanatics, Jay (Young Dais) and Fukami (Dai Hasegawa), who dream of entering the Pia Film Festival and becoming great directors. The three soon begin working together and meet up with Taeko (Kyoko Hinami), who introduces them to Mitsuko (Eri Kamataki). Taeko and Mitsuko are erstwhile high-school friends who drifted apart after one of their classmates died in tragic circumstances. Mitsuko is approached by a man, Joe Murata (Kippei Shiina), who claims to want to return a 50 yen coin to her, but it soon becomes obvious that he is a dangerous conman. Everyone Murata comes into contact with seems to get drawn into his orbit, despite being a completely despicable human being. The three young men decide he would make an excellent subject for their film, believing him to be responsible for several murders that have occurred recently. The truth is far more shocking as he subjects them and the women to a series of sadistic games, fleeces them of their money, and drags them into a hellish world of torture and killing, seemingly with little reason.

Kippei Shiina plays Murata with a sickening relish as a completely amoral human who cares for nobody but himself. His charisma is skin deep and his egocentric sadism is hard to stomach. His psychopathy is succinctly summarised by him in the opening scene when he describes the act of killing as akin to losing your virginity, something that once it is done it provokes no great change, it is simply a meaningless transition to becoming a murderer. Kyoko Hinami is perhaps the standout performance and the character of Taeko is the emotional heart of the drama. Her behaviour is often incomprehensible, but she seems self-aware enough to finally realise the horror of her situation. “The Forest of Love” is a film that seems determined to provoke a reaction, whether that is laughter or revulsion, which it does numerous times. Sono knows how to play the audience, confounding them with sudden shifts in tone and style that play alongside the warped characters to create a disorienting experience. The scene where Murata breaks out a mini piano to serenade his girlfriend’s parents is one such scene that is completely ridiculous and seems to come straight from a musical comedy, not something you would expect in a film that also features sado-masochistic electrocution and dismembered corpses. Another prime example is when two characters are frolicking with a hose as they wash down a room that has just been used to cut up a murder victim.

“The Forest of Love” may be a little overlong, a bizarre work that shows a creative mind throwing everything he has at it and hoping some of it works. For the most part it does, although many moments will be familiar to those who have seen “Cold Fish”, “Strange Circus”, “Love/ Exposure”, “Suicide Club” and other examples of Sono’s more extreme filmography.

The characters of Shin, Fukami and Jay, creations of Sono’s who almost feels like they have stumbled into this crime story from another film, are a clear reminder that the film should be seen as a commentary on events and society rather than a straightforward retelling of a true crime drama. They are fascinated by the crimes of Murata, going so far as to become directly involved in them. In what is perhaps a self-referential moment, Jay explains that he loves film because you can do anything you want, including travelling the world having sex and killing people. Jay can be seen as Sono inserting himself into the film to comment on the fascination people have with abhorrent behaviour. As for the crimes, the film offers very little in the way of an explanation, outside of Murata being a manipulative person who is able to convince others to join him. It does however create a visceral sense of dread and revulsion for the crimes and the way people are treated by him.

This is definitely worth a watch if you are a fan of Sion Sono’s extreme films. There are many moments that will make you squirm, laugh or want to turn away in disgust. Sono may be re-treading familiar themes and ideas but the quality and shock value are no less than in those earlier works.

Tag (2015) by Sion Sono

It is hard to give a synopsis of this film without spoiling what is the most fun part of watching it: the constant unexpected shocks, gross-out moments, and bursts of ultra-violence. The film follows three main characters, Miyuki (Reina Triendl), a high-school student, Keiko (Mariko Shinoda), a reluctant bride, and finally Izumi (Erina Mano), a marathon runner, whose sections blend into one another to give the impression that this is one personality represented as three individuals. The film has a dream-like sensibility to it, flowing from scene to scene, mixing nightmarish fantasy with reality.

The film begins with a unique scene of carnage, almost as ridiculous as it is terrifying, and doesn’t really let up from there. It could best be described as an absurdist horror, which will surprise, amuse and disgust you (sometimes in the same scene). It becomes apparent early on that what you are watching is not intended to be realistic, but read as a metaphor for something else. Writer and director Sion Sono is known for grotesque and sexualised imagery and here we have both. It makes a mockery of cheap exploitation almost while exemplifying the genre itself, think schoolgirl underwear peeked under short skirts and extreme carnage that seems to come out of nowhere. “Tag” does not scrimp on the horror with some genuinely disturbing moments. It keeps you on edge in a way that plays into the themes of the film. There is an ever present threat that is heightened by the surreal nature of what is unfolding. The acting from the three leads is fantastic and they do a great job of expressing the terror of what is happening. Supporting performances from Yuki Sakurai, Aki Hiraoka and Ami Tomite are enjoyable and the cast all have good chemistry together as friends. It is clear that the director intended this to be more than a simple horror-action film, and the direction does a good job of creating a sense that there are social themes under the surface. An early sequence of Miyuki by the river, with corpses and clothing strewn about, has a peculiar beauty to it, and throughout there are moments that are unforgettable for a variety of reasons.

“Tag” is grotesque, exploitative, and sensationalist, but also with a strong message against misogyny. The fears faced by Miyuki and Keiko, around school and marriage, are exaggerations of typical anxieties faced by girls and women. The use of the white feathers exemplify this notion of a perceived feminine purity that becomes tainted throughout life and the fear this engenders. This is twinned with the paranoia of the opening sequences which see Miyuki switch uniforms (moving up in school years). She is constantly buffeted by forces she cannot control, perhaps representative of puberty, and forced to keep moving forward. Later in the film the white feather comes to symbolise freedom. We see it at the end of the film when the characters seem to have finally broken free of their constraints. Miyuki’s friend tells her to remember that the world is surreal and there is no predetermined path. This idea, that you should not allow yourself to be defeated by the world, but keep your own sense of yourself alive is important. The final scenes drive home this message about a patriarchal society that treats women as playthings, becoming almost a critique of the film itself and the way it treats its main characters. The film is a cry for individualism in a world where women are forced into particular roles. We constantly see characters running from some unseen force, or pushed and pulled by other characters into situations they are not sure about, or don’t fully understand. The real conflict here is between the women and society itself. It is also a film about free will versus determinism, albeit told in its own bizarre, blood-spattered way. I would recommend this film to any fans of gory exploitation cinema with a twisted sense of humour and an unexpected message.

Cold Fish (2010) by Sion Sono

Nobuyuki Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) is the owner of a small fish store. Together with his wife, Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), and wayward daughter, Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara), they maintain a fairly unimpressive existence. When his daughter is caught stealing from a supermarket, she is helped out by Yukio Murata (Denden), a rival fish store owner who offers her a job at his store. Murata is comical, arrogant, outgoing, everything Shamoto is not. But soon things take a turn for the worse when Shamoto discovers that Murata’s jolly façade hides a much darker, violent character.

The film is well written with the mysteries surrounding Murata and the psychological and physical violence building to a screaming crescendo in the final act. It is far from an easy watch, with scenes of rape, abuse and very graphic scenes of dismemberment, but with director Sion Sono’s trademark black humour running through it. The main actors are fantastic. Fukikoshi does a great job of portraying the timid, disgusted Shamoto, and he does an incredible job of making this unimaginable transformation believable. The unhinged couple of Murata and his wife, a delightfully unhinged performance from Asuka Kurosawa, are also genuinely chilling with sudden changes from bright humour to dark violent moods. The film is long but almost every scene, whether the visceral, violent murders or the sharp dialogue are riveting. Shiya Kimura’s cinematography is stunning and the film almost revels in creating something beautiful out of a subject matter that is dark and nihilistic. The music by Tomohide Harada helps increase the sense of danger and draw you into the film.

“Cold Fish” may appeal to lovers of gore and exploitation cinema, and there is no shortage of shocking scenes, but, the film also expresses an underlying philosophy of alienation and nihilism that means the violence is far from gratuitous. The dissociative, sadomasochistic characters act in a world where the violence serves to puncture a sense of ennui which plagues them otherwise. The film offers no easy answers with the finale being an increasingly sickening display of human psychopathy. If you are a fan of this genre of blackly comedic, hyper-violent thrillers, then this is definitely a recommended watch. Enjoyably disturbing film.

Orgies of Edo (1969)

“Orgies of Edo” tells three stories connected with themes of sex and violence. The first story follows Oito (Masumi Tachibana), a young woman who is tricked by a gangster into a life of prostitution. The second features a woman with strange sexual perversions. She has a fetish for rape by men who are disfigured. In flashback we learn the dark secret that lies behind her perversion. She is attended by a man who harbours unrequited feelings for her, though towards whom she has no affection. The final story begins with a sadistic lord who delights in watching his harem being gored by a herd of bulls. One of the women takes his eye, seemingly a masochist with an equally insatiable appetite for torture and pain. However, she is also carrying a secret, one that threatens to end their twisted relationship.

The film written by director Teruo Ishii with Masahiro Kakefuda is a portrayal of the most base impulses of human society, lust and violence. Each tale unfolds almost as a dark parable, although the moral of each tale can be hard to discern at first. Despite a heavy emphasis on sex and gore it would be wrong to dismiss the film as mere titillation. There are deeper themes at work. Likewise, although the women are shown as victims in almost all cases, the film is sympathetic towards them. There is a certain sense in which the film delights in the most obscene material, incest, bestiality, rape, sexual violence and sadomasochism, but the film’s almost art house opening and closing sentiments set these things in context. The opening, with grotesques coming forth from a cabinet cues the audience in to the idea that this is intended as gruesome theatre. The stories are exaggerated portrayals of the very worst kinds of behaviour. The opening credits to the film are offensively garish, with names juddering and flashing across the screen while the music blares in concert with the images. Like with other films of the exploitation genre it intends to assault you with its message and has little time for subtlety. Ishii’s voyeuristic directorial style makes the viewer complicit in the horrors, peering from above as the terrible events unfold. There are great performances in all of the stories, especially from the main cast of women. The gory special effects are a little dated, and certain plot points cross the line of unacceptable racism, but a film of this kind is almost obliged to be as offensive as possible.

“Orgies of Edo” is disturbing from its first moments and in a little over 90 minutes manages to cover prostitution, infidelity, rape, incest, bestiality and sadomasochism. The film lays out a brutal worldview, one in which characters do despicable things and women are subject to all manner of sexual and psychological violence. The shock tactics are highly effective and it is not a film that could be considered boring, although some may find it offensive or distasteful. It is hard to summarise the messages of the film as they are multifarious. It does touch on ideas of power in sex relations, on the male tendency to violence, and on the underlying psychological causes of sexual perversion. In a sense the film is intended to provoke strong emotions, both of disgust and empathy towards the characters. The god-like perspective of many scenes also hints at a possible anti-theistic reading, as we are forced to watch impotently as the horrors unfold. This is a world in which morality, if it exists at all, is pushed aside and humans are shown as base and atavistic organisms. While passing decades and an increasingly liberal society may have dated certain scenes (particularly the use of dwarves and a black man as shorthand for ‘difference’ in the middle story), the film works well as a shocking exploitation drama with a message.

Mutant Girls Squad (2010)

A delightfully silly slice of gory action from three masters of the genre. When Rin (Yumi Sugimoto) reaches her sixteenth birthday she is told by her father that she is a mutant. This certainly explains her feelings of isolation at her highschool and alienation from classmates. Shortly after this revelation their home is invaded by the anti-mutant police who kill Rin’s parents. Rin meets Rei (Yuko Takayama) who is part of a team of mutants fighting against the human society who are oppressing them. They are led by Kisaragi (Tak Sakaguchi), a samurai transvestite. Rin also befriends another mutant Yoshie (Suzuka Morita) and the three of them are tasked with taking down a government official opposed to mutants.

The title should give away the fact that this film does not take itself too seriously. What little plot there is acts as a slender frame on which to hang outrageous comedy-horror action sequences. Everything from the police having guns on their noses, to one girl’s power being to have two tiny arms reaching out from her ears (this is far from the most ridiculous of their abilities), will certainly appeal to anyone with a childish sense of humour and love of obscene splatter comedy. The handmade quality of the film gives it a real charm and the amount of effort that has gone into costumes, special effects (including a lot of physical effects) and gore speaks to a highly motivated and talented crew. The film is helmed by three directors, Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police), Sakaguchi (Re:Born) and Noboru Iguchi, from a script by Iguchi and Jun Tsugita. The directors clearly share a love of schlocky horror and action and their enthusiasm is infectious. The film is hyperactive and insane, feeling like a student film given a budget that allows them to bring their madcap ideas to life. All of the main actresses go all-out in their performances, embracing the wacky premise and melodrama, and do well in both comedy and action roles.

The film is essentially a bully revenge story with a well-worn message of anti-discrimination and embracing difference. It revels in weirdness and eccentricity and is a film that wants to run as far from ‘mainstream’ as it is possible to get. Only recommended for those with a black sense of humour and a love of gory violence.