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.

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.