EXTE: Hair Extensions (2007) by Sion Sono

Yuko (Chiaki Kuriyama) stars as a wannabe hair stylist sweeping floors at a salon. When her wayward half-sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi) leaves her young daughter Mami (Miku Sato) with Yuko, she discovers that the child has been badly abused and neglected by her sister and decides to look after her. Meanwhile, Yamazaki (Ren Osugi), a man with a serious hair fetish, steals a corpse from the mortuary where he is working, cutting off the endlessly growing hair for use as hair extensions, which he provides for use at salons. The hair still retains the tortured soul of the deceased, the victim of an organ harvesting gang, and is soon causing havoc, killing indiscriminately. It is not long before Yuko’s own salon is given this questionable hair and she must fight to protect Mami.

“EXTE” is directed by Sion Sono, a master of the bizarre and ridiculous. The film mocks the common trope of ghost stories where long black hair is a defining feature of their characters. It is a satirical look at the banality of much of the genre. This is evidenced early in the film with the risible dialogue between the dock workers in the opening, and Yuko narrating her own introduction, drawing attention to how predictable and uninspired the film’s set-up is while also being a clever way of getting through what would be dull exposition, character names and quick personality checklists. The film repeatedly undermines itself in this way, creating a tone that is self-referential comedy horror. There are moments of terror in the film, whether the flashbacks of the young woman’s torture at the hands of organ harvesters, or the more commonplace horrors of child abuse that Mami suffers at the hands of her mother. In this way the film almost lures you in with the promise of something throwaway while subverting expectations by actually delving into some genuinely dark themes. Chiaki Kuriyama is likeable as Yuko and does a good job with the various tones that the film attempts, from lighthearted drama, to scenes of emotional distress. Tsugumi is deeply unlikeable as her sister, and Ren Osugi brings a scenery-chewing eccentricity to the creepy, hair-obsessed recluse Yamazaki. Sono again shows his skill with direction, pushing the special effects too far at times to create an over-the-top aesthetic that never takes itself too seriously. The use of a Christmas jingle is one example of this unorthodox style, another the impromptu song performed by Yamazaki, that is irreverent and inappropriate yet entirely in keeping with the rest of the film.

Sion Sono is having fun with J-Horror tropes with EXTE, creating a humorous deconstruction of typical ghost stories that have dominated the genre. The decision to set a fantastical supernatural evil against the genuinely terrifying sublot of Mami’s abuse at the hands of her mother, is potent. Perhaps the film’s way of saying that typical horror audience’s focus on ridiculous or unlikely horrors leads them to overlook everyday traumas. Yamazaki can also be seen both as a caricature of the sinister lurking figure common in horror films, but also as a much darker stereotype. His fetish and objectification of the corpse could be a commentary on the beauty industry and male perversions more widely. He does not care about women, only about the hair. The hollowness at the heart of “EXTE” is symbolic of the lack of meaning or significance in much of the horror genre or society more widely. Everything is superficial and fake (in the same way that the hair extensions are taking reality and making it something frivolous and unnecessary). A satirical side-swipe at the whole horror genre, that revels in its irreverent tone and delights in subverting expectations.

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.

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.