As discussed in the first part of this two-part exploration of the work of director Sion Sono, the director’s fascination with the bounds of love and human connection has been a central focus of his illustrious career since the earliest films he produced. Regardless of the genre he explored, his work always explored how we interact with one another and how our relationships and experiences are defined by our connections with one another and ourselves.
Love Exposure was a turning point for the director in more ways than one. Not only was it easily the director’s most successful work that raised their profile internationally, but Sion Sono’s exploration of his core ideas took on a vastly different path in the years which followed. Events like the 3/11 earthquake created an angrier Sono that lashed out at the world with his work, creating stories that still eschewed his core ideals but cried out and retaliated against an unjust world.
For this second part of my two-part exploration of the works of Sion Sono, I want to center on his post-Love Exposure works to explore how his core ideas have changed, all the way up to his most recent film, Red Post on Escher Street. With Prisoners of the Ghostland showing at Sundance Film Festival at the end of this month, we look at Sion Sono’s modern-day creative direction.
Love Transforming Into Hate
Sion Sono finished Love Exposure, and he was mad. Make the Last Wish and Be Sure to Share, both released in 2009, were the last films from the director to match the tone of his older pre-Love Exposure library of work. With Cold Fish, as much as his filmmaking style remained consistent, the tone and the way he expressed feelings of love took on the dimension of hate.
Love Exposure is the first film in the director’s ‘Hate’ trilogy, which continued into the beginning of the 2010s with Cold Fish and Guilty of Romance. As the name suggests, their focus on love centers on the equal propensity to hate, whether that be of the self or directed elsewhere. It would be unfair to suggest that the films that came before it refused to engage in hate, but even films like Suicide Club centered topics like death in a way that focused less on the finality of it and more on celebrating love, leaving a mark, and sharing happiness when you can. They’re undeniably hopeful films, and Love Exposure shares this in common with his early filmography.
Cold Fish is far removed from this. Cold Fish centers on warped emotions and exploitation, exploiting love and empathy to create misfortune and hate. It’s certainly Sion Sono’s filmmaking at his most grim. While I found it to be one of the lesser films of his filmography from a personal enjoyment perspective, it’s impossible not to recognize the film’s technical merits, or its importance in defining his work from here on out.
Nobuyuki Shamoto, the film’s protagonist, is transformed by the acts he engages in. The weak position Nobuyuki holds as a person who feels disrespected by his wife and daughter, as a result of the former’s loveless disdain and the latter’s anger at him remarrying so soon after his previous wife’s death, things he feels entitled to, makes him vulnerable. He still undoubtedly loves his family and wants to share that love by doing things like a ‘normal’ family, so the opportunity to get his daughter out of trouble for shoplifting by partnering with the shady Yukio seems almost perfect.
This is exploited by Yukio, who spends the remainder of the film inflicting living hell as he pressures Nobuyuki into things he isn’t comfortable with while making him an accomplice to murder. Nobuyuki was trapped into these actions long before the film even started by his need for validation. Sion Sono makes you feel this pain through the dark color palette and claustrophobic cinematography.
Meanwhile, being trapped and searching for liberation against those who hurt them in the past is the core of Guilty of Romance. Love’s relation to hate bursts from the seams in both films. In fact, it makes me wonder whether the title chosen for this column is appropriate. Sion Sono’s films have been far more concerned with hatred and exploitation over the last 12 years, even if they still are, ultimately, films about love.
You only need to look at Himizu and Land of Hope for this to become obvious. Both films were made in response to the effects of the 3/11 earthquake, with Himizu acting as a manga adaptation explored in a 3/11 context. To center on Land of Hope first, while the film at first glance may feel like an exploration of hope against adversity at a time of extremity, the hatred it generates is external from the picture itself.
Set against the backdrop of a fictional earthquake and nuclear meltdown so clearly evoking the tragedy, the hope of the family the story focuses upon is contrasted by a growing hatred in the viewer at the incompetency of the Japanese government towards responding to the crisis. Their situation and exposure to radiation are made worse by unnecessary bureaucracy, incompetency, and a failed response to a humanitarian crisis. To save face, governments all-but-encourage denialism.
Hatred is driven at the division and disregard sewn by those in power to save face, demanding the same response from the audience. The family, consisting of them and an elderly couple in Yasuhiko and the dementia-stricken Chieko, are abandoned by the government because their home lies mere inches outside the safety zone. Others, meanwhile, are discriminated against simply for fleeing the disaster area. At a time when people should come together, as the central family did, they are being selfishly driven apart.
Himizu is a bit more hopeful simply for its focus on character over circumstance. Sumida’s dream of a normal life will never come true thanks to the hatred of and towards his absent parents, and it’s worse for Keiko as her parents sculpt a noose they hope she’ll use to hang herself for their convenience. The film’s focus on the togetherness of its core cast gives this a more hopeful overall tone than Land of Hope. Despite that movie’s beautiful message, it doesn’t stop this film from being destructively angry and swiping at the world around it.
You get the impression with much of Sion Sono’s post-3/11 work that he gained a renewed desire to center his exploitative and extreme filmmaking towards correcting and highlighting injustice, creating conflict between human’s innate nature to reach out and love and feelings of anger.
He still has a lot of love for love and the triumph of bringing people together over splitting them apart in his films. One of Sion Sono’s craziest films in recent years is arguably Tokyo Tribe, a film that brings hip-hop rap battles into a musical tale of turf wars between rival gangs that escalates into an all-out fight against a cannibal yakuza overlord. With great music and a superb visual style, it’s a real treat and harkens back to the early years of Sion Sono through its use of many non-professional actors and a story told deep in the streets of Tokyo (even if technically filmed on Nikkatsu’s back lot for much of it).
Red Post on Escher Street is similarly about love above all else, all while holding an ultimately unique place in the director’s filmography. While thematically familiar, this film’s positive message about the world around us and the people who inhabit it holds only a few of the hallmarks that define the director’s library of work. The film celebrates the role we all play as extras in the lives of others while having unique and varied circumstances that define who we are.
Crossing the divide between commentary on the film industry, the circumstances that create stress and hardship, and a cry out from those trapped and searching for freedom in a year defined by COVID and lockdowns, a film like this screams for the genuine love of a world we can all coexist within.
These films are fewer and further between than they were in his earlier works. Sion Sono’s style and desire to explore hatred’s intrusion into love and its blockade on human connection, an ultimately similar yet distinctly different topic, have resonated with audiences that are similarly angry at the direction the world has taken into division and hatred.
I mean, just take a look outside. In the middle of a pandemic, there are those who can’t agree one of the worst disasters in modern human history even exists; meanwhile, America just suffered an attempt to overthrow a democratic election and the younger generation is irrevocably suffering because of policies from an older generation in power that have left even the necessities of survival an almost impossible luxury.
Discrimination within Japan is still rarely challenged and even exacerbated by governmental COVID responses disproportionately targeting foreign residents and prospective visa owners, while sexism and racism remain pertinent issues in society. The last 10 years, and particularly the pandemic, have brought these issues to light in new and more troubling ways, the rise of far-right populism and fascism around the world a consequence of the acceptance or indifference to human suffering in the face of blind, naïve togetherness.
In a world so unequal, filled with so much pain and injustice that are further inflicted by governments and those who benefit from the status quo, where’s the room for love? Exceptions like Tokyo Tribe can only exist by centering human connections within a framework of the disadvantaged and overlooked classes getting deserved justice against undeniable wrongs. Otherwise, it’s practically a necessity to state these wrongs clearly, in the hope that a cry against hatred can bring about change.
Warning: This section’s video and images are semi-NSFW
One of his best films that states these wrongs, and Sion Sono’s best film to date, would be Antiporno. The movie was part of an attempted revival project of the Roman Porno genre at Nikkatsu and ended up being an all-out critique of the genre conventions it engages with and the porn industry’s willingness to objectify and degrade for the purpose of pleasuring the male gaze.
To quickly explain the roots of Roman Porno for those unfamiliar, Roman Porno was the name given to Nikkatsu’s line of pink films, softcore adult videos that the studio began to produce almost exclusively from the beginning of the 1970s. Provided that directors followed rules such as including at least one sex scene every 10 minutes, directors had a lot of freedom to experiment within the genre. You saw this in the films produced, where you had everything from the thriller Female Cat to Oh! Takarazuka, a musical comedy, with everything in-between.
Nikkatsu chose to revive the genre in the mid-2010s, with several directors creating new Roman Pornos with a strict 80-minute maximum length, filming limitations that required films to be recorded on the studio back lot in under a week, and adhere to the sex scene requirements. One of those directors was Sion Sono. It wasn’t the first pink film the director produced, having created two pink films in the late 1990s like the homoerotic Phallus: The Man. Even with these films, the director’s ability to comment on sex and the body is present and bring the gaze of the camera into the work itself, a style perfected in Antiporno.
The film centers on Kyoko, a novel writer and artist living in an open-layout apartment with seeming liberty. She lives open and carefree in her apartment, and when her assistant comes to visit, she takes advantage of her power to denigrate and dominate her, getting others to rape her while she shouts her desire to become a whore. Only then does the camera take a step back, and the events shown are part of a film, where suddenly Kyoko is lacking agency as her fellow actors and staff abuse sexually assault her. The film opens further with each scene as it brings the concept of the film into focus and examines female liberty and strength within the film industry and society more broadly.
Roman Porno as a genre has no reason to exist in the modern day, yet it’s also difficult to argue the genre or the films produced within it have nothing to offer. Women in pink films, even when powerful, represent a rejection of the bounds placed upon them as seen with Meiko Kaji’s Female Prisoner Scorpion. They remain without full control, their role existing for male sexual pleasure.
Sion Sono plays with this idea throughout Antiporno. The film is less a story and more a thesis statement told through visual metaphor. We are slaves to the idea that people are free, even when living within society brings the bounds of misogyny and the gaze upon women. Society is still driven by male desire in a way that brings disgrace to even the term ‘female’, the word weaponized to make a job title like ‘female lawyer’ seem lesser for no reason other than gender. How can a woman be any different to a toilet, in that case, when you look down on both as you piss?
Monologues of sexual identity are crafted as the film breaks the fourth wall, turning the main character into both a vehicle for male desire and female agency, makes it such an engaging, powerful and compact piece of cinema. All the while these monologues disgracing the idea of sex being a driving force for enjoyment are spoken while we watch the female assistant be assaulted, weaponizing the genre while condemning it. While at times on the nose, I feel this is to the film’s benefit.
As with much of his post-Love Exposure work, Antiporno is lashing out at the world, delegitimizing a genre he is crafting a feature within. All within a lean 76-minute runtime.
For me, Antiporno represents Sion Sono at his best. Constrained in length, visually unique, and simultaneously extreme yet considered, Sono captures and sells his ideals through what has traditionally been viewed as ‘lower’ cinema. Antiporno not only holds all the landmarks of a Sion Sono work, but it also showcases it better than any other.
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 !