Love and Peace (2015)

Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa), a lowly office clerk, dreams of becoming a rock star and reliving the successes of his younger years. He also has romantic inclinations towards his co-worker Yuko Terashima (Kumiko Aso). One day at lunch he buys a small pet turtle which he takes back to his apartment, sharing with it his hopes and ambitions and naming it ‘Pikadon’. After being bullied for having the turtle at work, Ryoichi flushes it down the toilet. The film then splits into two stories: one following Ryoichi on his journey to musical greatness via series of unlikely chance encounters; the other following Pikadon as he finds his way to a homeless man (Toshiyuki Nishida) in the sewers, who has collected a group of talking toys and animals to him.

Written and directed by prolific film-maker Sion Sono, this film has the expected blend of hilarity, tragedy and all-out insane spectacle. “Love and Peace” always seems to be heading in one direction and then quickly takes you somewhere unexpected. The finale of the film is a spectacle that is utterly ridiculous, but entirely in keeping with the anarchic sensibilities of the rest of the film. The split narrative of Ryoichi and Pikadon gives an interesting flavour to the film, showing the darker side of society’s relentless obsession with fame to the detriment of compassion and care. The abandoned toys in the sewers serve as a poignant reminder that consumerism often leads to a selfish mindset that neglects anything seen as old or worthless. The acting is great, particularly from Hiroki Hasegawa, who does a fantastic job portraying the put-upon Ryochi, bullied and unable to achieve his dreams, and later his rock-star alter-ego “Wild Ryo”, boastful and comfortable with the adoration of large crowds. Also great is Toshiyuki Nishida, who plays the homeless man to whom all the lost toys manage to find their way. His portrayal of the kindly drunk is one of the most touching parts of the film. The music consists largely of two songs: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, and the constant refrain of Ryoichi’s big hit “Love and Peace”, which you may find yourself humming throughout.

The main theme of the film concerns Ryoichi’s search for fame and how this leads to him abandoning those things that are truly important. It is far from subtle in the transformation of this retiring office worker into an arrogant rock star and likewise in showing the effects of his selfish actions. There is also the complimentary story of the toys, who find themselves abandoned and unloved once Christmas is forgotten (a metaphor for the fickle nature of celebrity and a pointed statement on the consumerism of the season). I would highly recommend this for the unexpected laughs, the bizarreness of the concept, and for some genuinely moving moments involving the homeless man and the toys.

Strange Circus (2005)

A twisted horror story about incest, rape, trauma and revenge. 12 year old Mitsuko is forced into a cello case by her father and made to watch him have sex with her mother. He later begins abusing his own daughter. When her mother becomes aware of this it leads to a breakdown in their relationship. Mitsuko begins to believe they are in some respect switching places, with her taking the place of her mother. After she pushes her down the stairs and kills her things get even more bizarre. We are then introduced to Taeko, a woman who is writing the story we have until this point being watching. It is clear that Taeko is also somewhat disturbed. The film suggests that this may be the grown-up Mitsuko, or a version of her shattered psyche (both are played by the same actress). As the plot unfolds we are confronted with several horrifying revelations.

Director Sion Sono is no stranger to gory horror and sexual violence. Though you get the sense here, as in other films (Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table), that the shocks are far from gratuitous, instead serving to emphasise much deeper and more terrifying themes. The opening scene of the film takes place in a cabaret club with all manner of bizarre characters. It is a metaphysical space of nightmares with a carnival atmosphere, part burlesque, part house of horrors. A guillotine is brought onto the stage and a willing volunteer for decapitation coaxed from the audience. This is Mitsuko. This opening is a perfect example of Sono’s unconventional style of storytelling. Not everything that happens in the film is to be taken too literally. Instead he would rather you focus on the emotional content, finding truth and significance beyond the merely factual. In its closing scenes the film, until that point a dizzying spiral of insanity, does tie everything neatly together in some regard, but leaves room for interpretation. The intercuts to the Ferris Wheel, Mitsuko’s school walls morphing into bloody flesh, and the blurring of the lines between various characters, help to give the film a sense of paranoia and uneasiness that is in keeping with the protagonists own feelings. This is a film that succeeds in making you feel disgusted at what is being perpetrated on these women. The music is likewise a creepy, lilting carnival score, with the off-key blast of accordion further enhancing the unsettling atmosphere. The actors all do a magnificent job, especially Masumi Miyazaki as Mitsuko and Taeko.

Strange Circus is a film that deals with themes of incest and sexual violence. It is an experiential film in places. That is to say its intent is to make you fully empathise with the characters sense of repulsion, isolation and confusion. You are meant to feel as Mitsuko feels, that her abuse is at once incomprehensible but undeniably grotesque. Her view of the world is completely distorted by what she endured and as the film progresses you realise that both Mitsuko and Taeko are unreliable narrators. I would definitely recommend the film for fans of Sion Sono’s other horror films, with much the same aesthetic and themes here.  

Love Exposure (2008)

Yu Honda’s life is one steeped in Christian tradition. Following the death of his mother, a devoutly religious woman, he lives together with his father who turns to the priesthood to deal with his grief. However, his father’s increasingly stringent demands for his son to confess his sins soon leads Yu into the gang lifestyle in order to find something worthy of confession. Yu meets up with a group of tearaway teens who are into shoplifting and soon graduates to taking covert upskirt photos of women, believing sexual perversion to be the one thing that will satiate his father. Meanwhile, Yu’s father falls in love with a sexually aggressive woman who leads him away from his calling as a priest, and Yu continues with his perverse hobby along with his newfound friends. Yu has sworn off sexual or romantic relationships with any woman other than his “Maria”, after his mother told him in his youth that she wanted him to find a girl exactly like the mother of Christ. Unexpectedly, while in drag after losing a bet, Yu meets his Maria in the shape of Yoko. This girl is also carrying plenty of emotional and psychological baggage, having suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her promiscuous father. Yoko falls in love with Yu, believing him to be a woman called Miss Scorpion. Unable to confess to her as himself, Yu is in emotional turmoil. A second girl, Aya Koike, is meanwhile attempting to destroy Yu’s family, by converting his father to the cult of Zero Church that she is involved with.

Written and directed by Sion Sono the film is clearly the work of an auteur of exceptional talent and unique vision. While a four-hour movie may sound long, Sono’s skill at storytelling and the characters, humour and ideas he manages to pack in make this an enjoyable watch from start to finish. The running time also allows for a full exploration of several of the themes of the movie. The film is chaptered, and with the main three characters of Yu, Yoko and Aya, it is broken up in such a way that maintains the audiences interest throughout. As well as several plot strands, such as Yu’s deception of Yoko as Miss Scorpion, the Zero Church, and even Yu’s father’s romance, each relationship sets up another conflict requiring resolution. The actors all do an incredible job with the material that veers from slapstick to serious without ever undermining itself. Takahiro Nishijima is great as Yu, who is fighting to reconcile his religious upbringing with his emotional urges. It is a credit to him that he creates a believable character of Yu, who could have been simply a caricature pervert. The film later makes a point of contrasting him with just such characters to emphasise his own psychological depth. Aya Koike is a force of nature, manipulative and vicious, though again with good reason. Hikari Mitsushima delivers a spellbinding performance. While her initial appearance seems to suggest a typical angry teenager, as the film progresses and we see her open up emotionally she shows a huge range. In particular her recitation of the biblical passage Corinthians 13 is an incredible piece of acting and one of the highlights of the later portion of the film.

What begins as a satirical look at the perversion of religion and its obsession with deviancy, and in particular sexual deviancy, expands to include various topics. There is throughout an examination of sex, both its dark and destructive aspect as well as its undeniable power and significance in human relations. The film also deals with issues of abuse, emotional, physical and sexual, and how this can impact on the development of individuals. It may be convenient for some to boil the film down to an essential message about the importance of love, or even a more cliched “love conquers all” philosophy, but that would be to miss the point. The film’s multifarious dimensions, the merging and distorting of divine and obscene imagery, suggests an intention to purposely blur the lines between what is and is not sacred or important to humanity. People struggle under the weight of imposed religious morality, and it is openly mocked at times, but there is an understanding that people need something to strive towards or cling to. For some in the film this means substituting the traditional Christian church with a new cult, for others it is an obsession with perversion, for others it is love. “Love Exposure” is rarely condescending, even when pointing out the absurdity of humans. It instead attempts to unravel the various social pressures, psychological foundations, and basic human drivers to understand why humans act the way they do.

The Sion Sono (2015)

Sion Sono is a prolific director, having made over 40 films in his career. He came to prominence through gory horror films such as “Suicide Club”, but he has created works in several genres, comedies like “Love & Peace”, a hip-hop musical “Tokyo Tribe”, and more dramatic works such as “Himizu” and “Cold Fish” (inspired partly by real world events). The film discusses the fact that he is hard to categorise, in some ways having created a category all of his own, the “Sion Sono” film. He is an auteur, both writing and directing many of his projects. However, Sono admits that he has enjoyed more fame and success abroad than in Japan, suggesting that the Japanese film industry tends to shy away from films that show the country in a bad light. His focus on sex, violence, pornography, crime, and other taboo subjects have helped to turn him into a cult star rather than a mainstream success. But it clear from this documentary that success is not something that Sono feels is the most important thing in life. We see early on his disordered studio, with large canvases strewn around and wild impressionistic scribblings across them and slap-dash calligraphy pinned to the wall. We witness an amusing scene as Sono attempts to explain something of his process, and his philosophy, to the cameraman, as he daubs paint on a canvas, in a haphazard way, creating some sort of story in his own mind as he goes, and discussing the purity of the canvas being despoiled by his paint. Rather than strive for perfection he belives true beauty lies in these imperfections, lives that are full of mistakes and rectifications. Later on he suggests that he values quantity over quality, inverting the familiar in his own controversial style he seems to be determinedly set against mainstream expectations. Sono’s primary drive is to create. As he say himself, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, humans are here to create, to express themselves, and to live. It is a chaotic philosophy but it appears to have paid off for the director. Despite many in the film suggesting he should have become famous sooner than he did, his recent celebrity due to several fantastic films in a short span of years has ensured his place in the pantheon of top directors.

The film follows Sono through a year of his life as he works on “The Whispering Star” (2015) and talks about many of his other works. There are interviews with Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido (co-stars in Himizu), his wife and actress in the Whispering Star, Megumi Kagurazaka, producers, friends, and even his sister. Together they paint a picture of a man who is slightly eccentric, incredibly driven, passionate about his work, kind, and with a love of film stretching back to his childhood. During the segment with his sister he digs through old notebooks, showing his early film criticism, including a “Sion Sono” awards with Best Picture, Actress and Actor awards. There is also fascinating insight into how he creates his work, looking round sets, frantically scribbling down storyboards, dictating a precis of a new film to his assistant. In some of the most powerful scenes of the film we see Sono and his team in Fukushima, the area devastated by a nuclear plant explosion and which featured as a backdrop in both Himizu and The Whispering Star. As he speaks to locals, some of whom he recruits to act in his movie, we hear of their loss following the tsunami that destroyed their homes and businesses. Although the film doesn’t go into this in great detail it is clear that Sono feels this is an important issue to highlight. In fact this segment stands as a great documentary in itself on the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

A great behind-the-scenes look at how this director works, his formative experiences, philosophy and creativity. Sono says that the only thing that concerns him is making interesting films, whether they succeed or fail financially. This documentary is certainly interesting, offering a great insight into a director with a unique vision.

The Whispering Star (2015)

Yoko works for the Space Postal Service, delivering packages to distant planets. Her only companion is the onboard computer, which seems to be malfunctioning. Yoko is a humanoid robot who spends her days engaged in everyday chores, making tea, cleaning the ship, and listening to old tapes that she recorded detailing her travels. This existence is punctuated by her arrival on a number of different planets where she must deliver packages to humans sent from relatives. We discover early on that due to some unknown catastrophe many of the humans in the universe are dead, meaning planets are sparsely inhabited and people separated by great distances. Yoko interacts with several of these people as she performs her duties, before setting off again in her ship. Throughout she wonders why it is that humans, and only humans, feel a need to send each other things.

Shot in black-and-white the film is based on a very early story idea from director Sion Sono. Better known for his violent and outrageous films, this film seems somewhat unusual in his filmography. The Whispering Star is a very contemplative film, with little dialogue for long stretches, but it does a great job of visual storytelling and finding humour and interest in seemingly everyday things. An early example of this is the dripping tap on the spaceship. Intercut with title cards showing passing days, Sono manages to convey the length of time spent on a ship, the out-of-place feeling occasioned by a lack of reference in space, it melds humour and melancholy perfectly without the need for dialogue or explanation. Many more scenes follow this pattern, using repetition of chores to highlight the monotony of Yoko’s journey. The set design of the ship is charmingly retro, with inside and out looking like a traditional home, complete with sink, plug sockets and things which again give the film a wry comedic edge when the audience contemplates the absurdity of such a set-up. It harkens back to old science-fiction films, and could easily have been made at any time in the last half century. The ship computer is likewise reminiscent of a traditional, early 20th century view of the future, with flashing lights and an old fashioned radio design. The terrestrial scenes were shot around Fukushima, with its abandoned towns and decimated landscapes providing a poignant backdrop for the drama. This also allows for some incredible shots without the use of special effects or set-dressing, such as boats grounded in the middle of a field, crumbling buildings and deserted streets. The cinematography is spectacular and each scene is shot with care. Megumi Kagurazaka is incredible as Yoko and carries the film for large parts single-handedly. Despite being trapped with her on the ship for long stretches, there is enough nuance and charisma in her performance that it is not hard to spend so much time with her.

The Whispering Star is a film about isolation and a post-apocalyptic society still clinging to some sense of normality. The small communities scattered throughout the universe are attempting to reach out to one another through sending gifts and this speaks powerfully to the human urge to social interaction. Life is fragile and transitory and it is during this brief span that humans must attempt to connect and make sense of their surroundings. It is also a film about memory and the past. As Yoko listens to her recordings we are forced to think about time passing, again referenced by the eternally dripping tap on the ship. The passage of time is important as it takes so long for Yoko to travel to each destination. The finale of the film is a spectacular sequence that wordlessly takes Yoko on a journey through various stages of life, though expressed almost as a shadow-play while Yoko herself is at the forefront. Each of the worlds Yoko travels to seems to be only an echo of what it used to be. In one scene she arrives late to deliver a package, again emphaising the importance of time, and the urgency of humans to live their lives.