How do you summarize the career of a director like Sion Sono? For over three decades, between shooting films on the streets of Tokyo as a student and throughout the 90s with amateur talent and a theatre troupe to his modern films on major budgets, Sion Sono has had a prolific career that has seen his profile rise to become one of Japan’s most recognizable directors.
Even as the style and direction of his work have changed throughout his long-running career, there are certain elements of his directorial style and work that have remained steadfast, with a few central themes that have permeated all of his works that have transformed and evolved and developed over the years to form a career-long exploration of love and human connection in relation to the passing of time and the physical self. In various forms.
This week’s entry of Your Japanese Film Insight is going to be a little different. To fully explore Sono’s decades-long career and how his exploration of certain ideas has changed and evolved over the years, this topic will be split into two separate columns with his most recognizable and successful film, Love Exposure, acting as a dividing line between the director’s early work and his newest creations. Ahead of the upcoming Sundance Film Festival premiere of Sion Sono’s first English-language film, Prisoners of the Ghostland, let’s explore the thematic core of Sion Sono’s career.
Humanism and Love Amidst Derangement
It’s easy to see the crazy, almost-unhinged nature of some of the more extreme moments of Sion Sono’s filmography and assume that’s all there is to the director’s work. It’s easy to look at the sexual elements found in films the director is most known for, such as Love Exposure and his 2015 movie Antiporno, and assume that’s all he has to offer. These elements are loud and bombastic in almost every film the director has produced and offers a kinetic energy that threatens to overload the senses at every turn.
It’s certainly a large part of the director’s appeal, attracting more people to his films than it wards off, and yet the post-2000s films from the director can almost appear calm when placed alongside his student films, produced on a budget of zero using Super 8 home video cameras.
I Am Sion Sono, one of Sono’s earliest films, is a bizarre 30-minute short film that acts as a pseudo-autobiographical insight into the mind of the director in the weeks leading up to his birthday that sees them goof off with a girl in-between introspective video diaries that ends with him shaving his head. Yet this is nothing when compared to A Man’s Flower Road, a film commenting on societal conformity and the way the rigidity of society can impede the ability of a person to live true to oneself and connect portrayed through, well, public nuisance, nudity and illegally painting Tokyo streets. Mixed with a second part made up of mundane home living shots.
There’s a no-holds-barred approach to the extremes that Sono is willing to reach in these films that act to the detriment of his earliest works. While the joy of film production and in the creative process is evident in the final product, these films often veer too far into meta-dialogue between the friends he produced these films with where they can end up feeling unfocused and rough. There are signs of the talent the director would later showcase to be found in these films, but they’re not the most enjoyable to watch outside of the thrill of law-breaking and the way they make you feel like a member of Sono’s thrill-seeking crew.
Underneath the surface of these bombastic student films are the roots of an idea he’s never strayed far from throughout his decades-long career. Sion Sono, a once aspiring poet, has a humanist core to his work that delves into the physical and metaphorical nature of human connection and time in new and unique ways with every film he produces.
This can be observed in the physical playfulness of the friendships contrasted against his personal video diary in I Am Sion Sono, or through possessions in I Am Keiko. In this movie, a 1997 minimalist film that can almost be seen as a companion piece to I Am Sion Sono as it follows a woman counting the days and minutes until her 22nd birthday shortly following her father’s passing. We see physical human connections manifest through the possessions her father left behind, which she considers and holds close as she counts the seconds and minutes go by.
What makes these early years of Sion Sono’s career so interesting isn’t just the topic he explores or his constant desire to return to it, but how each of his films explores this theme in a completely new idea to develop a deeper understanding with each passing film. Despite using the same structure in I Am Sion Sono and I Am Keiko, both explore connections in different ways, while The Room is different once again. Sometimes it’s not about what you say but how you say it, and a constant desire to return to the same ideas with a different ‘how’ can bring a new or interesting conclusion to the same question.
Utsushimi is a fascinating example of this. Utsushimi explores the role of physicality and the body in romantic connection in a bizarre faux documentary that mixes real footage from photoshoots and a butoh performer to act as a commentary against a fictionalized and exaggerated romance between a schoolgirl and a restaurant owner. The connection is explored here through the motifs of the body and Hachiko.
The driving idea of this film is that the body itself is hollow and without meaning, gaining meaning because forming a physical bond gives them meaning. The schoolgirl dragging Hachiko to the restaurant convinces the chef of her loyalty and desire to be with him. Hachiko gives the hollow body meaning that convinces the chef to have sex with her.
After having sex, love consumes him and, when love forms, a true connection is formed between the pair, represented by the chef’s newfound passion following his initial disinterest and the way they run and chase one another throughout the rest of the film. It’s only through forming a true connection, whether through sex or other ways, that a body becomes ‘real’, and only then will we give them agency in our minds.
In Sion Sono’s early career, his most interesting explorations of this theme undoubtedly come from his dive into the connections people find in cults and how this can morph a person’s connection with the self, best epitomized in Suicide Club and Love Exposure with differing results. Perhaps this is due to the subject matter of cults being a more personal topic for him: he admitted in an interview that the cult experiences portrayed in Love Exposure are partially inspired by his own time inside a Christian cult at the age of 17.
With Suicide Club, the ‘cult’ manifests in the idea of the suicide club, a mysterious phenomenon that, like the 54 girls that jump in front of a train in the movie’s shocking opening moments, sprouts seemingly from nowhere and compels people to commit suicide. The cult gives potency to the arguably humanist conclusion of the film’s ending by contrasting the horror of witnessing suicide over and over with ideas of self-love and the need to remember our connection with ourselves in a world that prioritizes working for others.
Suicide Club brought Sion Sono into the international consciousness even as his film was widely rejected by Japanese audiences. It’s easy to understand why: while suicide numbers have been on the decline for years, they were a much more prevalent concern at this time, and that’s before addressing the uncomfortable comparisons to Aum Shinrikyo. To international audiences, the shock of what is arguably the director’s most extreme film elicited huge reactions both positive and negative, giving the film attention and a platform beyond his previous films, even beyond his more ‘artistic’ films like The Room that toured festivals around the world.
And yet, if it were just garnering reactions on shock value alone, the film wouldn’t remain so noteworthy all these years later. Underneath the violence and suicide of this film is a commentary on how groups brought together under a single idea can find connections in places they can’t in their daily life, and this connection can easily be weaponized to convince anyone to do just about anything, even suicide. Yet beyond that, it arguably spreads a message of hope: we make an impact on Earth that lasts beyond our death through the connections we form with the people around us; how can we hope to maintain these connections and ensure this lasting impact if we can’t form a connection with our own selves?
Each film in Sion Sono’s early career can be defined by these questions of human connection, with a different method of experimentation on this question deepening Sono’s understanding with every project. While not every film, especially in his student days, succeeds at being an enjoyable viewing experience, it still leaves you with something to ponder thanks to the confrontational nature of their storytelling. Whether challenging you to wait in the meditative calm of I Am Keiko or deliberately confronting their sensibilities in films like Suicide Club, this challenging filmmaking style forces the audience to enter an adversarial relationship with his films that facilitate these discussions.
And then there’s Love Exposure.
Film Flashback: Love Exposure (愛のむきだし, Sion Sono, 2008)
No film epitomizes this era of Sion Sono quite like Love Exposure, a 4-hour epic that feels like a culmination of the man’s career until that point while delving deep into himself to ask the meta-question of why he engages so often in the same core topics.
Love Exposure covers a lot of ground over its runtime. The film starts with a disintegrating family relationship following the passing of the protagonist’s mother. A Catholic family, her passing pushes the father deeper into his work with the local church, eventually sending him into the hands of a woman who enters the religion to form a relationship with the father, splintering the father-son relation. Yu, losing this relationship, can now only get close to his father by admitting to his sins in confessional, which twists in his mind due to the strict teachings of his father to deliberately committing sins to earn his attention and anger. Naturally, this involves upskirt photography.
We’re barely getting started here.
The film culminates in a wide-ranging exploration of religion and cults through the actions of the Catholic Church to degrade individual autonomy, alongside the Zero Church, a cult offshoot. The Zero Church leader, Aya Koike, begins to take interest in Yu, and only becomes more intrigued after he saves Yoko in the costume of Sasori from Female Prisoner Scorpion and the pair fall in love, even if Yoko doesn’t realize it’s Yu behind the costume. Between working at a porn production company, the pair becoming brother and sister and more, their relationship goes through a lot over the course of the next few hours.
Love Exposure marks a shift in Sion Sono’s filmography in how he explores love and relationships. This film is the start of the ‘Hate’ trilogy the director produced at the end of the 2000s and early 2010s that explored love from a new direction: it’s relationship to hate. Perhaps the most powerful message from this film is the idea that those who hate themselves are the people most deserving of love, and reaching out can transform and save lives.
While it’s an easy idea to lose in the spectacle of the experience, Yu’s spiral into sexual perversion and his hiding behind the symbol of Female Prisoner Scorpion comes from a desire to use what she represents to hide from his problems. As I mentioned in my discussion of Meiko Kaji’s iconic action heroine film roles, Sasori resonated with Japanese audiences by appealing to the changing morals of Japanese society and being a character who rebelled against the rigidity of society by refusing to conform. The prison system in these films is unjust, and she stands in opposition to it and becomes a beacon of hope for the other prisoners.
While Yu initially dressed as Sasori as a result of a lost bet, he takes on the character of Sasori after becoming a symbol of hope for his love, Yoko. A desire to become the symbol to replace his flaws overtakes his desire to be with Yoko, the actions of a self-hating adolescent who needs a reason to keep going. It’s only after Yoko recognizes everything Yu has done for her and reaches out to him for who he is that he can break away from this character.
Similarly, Yu’s father’s reliance on the church makes up for blaming himself for the death of his wife, a sense of guilt exploited by the Zero Church. He only breaks the cycle after leaving the church altogether.
Even the ‘antagonist’ of the film, Koike, becomes sympathetic by the end due to how the cult has warped their sense of self to the point of being unable to picture life outside of it after an abusive childhood. In that sense, the true antagonist of the film, if one even exists, is the institutions of cult and religion. Both are portrayed as manipulative forces that can be a genuine source of salvation for some but are equally culpable and thrive on the forgiveness of hate and an escape from guilt, filling in the holes of hate that exist within a person when they need to be filled with hope and love.
Love Exposure is a magnificent culmination of the two-decade exploration of human connection by considering sex, the physical, and hate concerning the bonds we form, told over 4 magnificent hours of non-stop thrills. Even away from the thematic strengths of the film, acting is superb by all of our leads to capture the wide range of emotions explored within this film. A must-see Sion Sono film and a defining achievement in the director’s distinguished career.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl !