The debate over what constitutes a “national” cinema will likely be a relentless, perpetually expanding conversation. Japanese cinema is one of the most recognizable films to Western audiences only because of the nation’s storied history with cinematic vocabulary; many of the early masters of cinema (Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa in particular) hailed from Japan, and perhaps as a byproduct of such distinct, classical visions of the East, the Western world has done little to expand its understanding of East Asian cinema and it’s diverse array of themes, philosophies, aesthetics and financing. Sion Sono is a filmmaker who is often acknowledged by cinephiles and critics for his unique style, however, he has yet to strike significant mainstream appeal. For a filmmaker who is making movies so explicitly about the angst and loneliness of Japanese society, his films nonetheless appeal to international audiences and continue to garner attention on festival circuits. Sono considers himself an “outsider”, however, this is complicated because he’s perhaps only so to his own country.
Sono’s debut film was Suicide Club, released in 2001, this film follows the collective suicide of fifty-four Japanese school girls who jump in front of a train gleefully as they sing a song together. This film establishes Sono’s interest in youth rebellion and the terror of the generation gap. The adults of the film are in constant bewilderment at the children, as if they are helpless to understand, connect, or empathize with any of their decisions or psychology. The film was financed solely in Japan, however, for mass distribution TLA Releasing brought the film to countries beyond its native nation. Considering Sono is more popular in the West than he is in the East, the fact that his breakthrough film was mass distributed across the globe by a company that primarily works with LGBTQ+ films further cemented his status as home amongst misfits and outcasts. Whether the distributor thought that Suicide Club would play well with queer audieneces will likely remain a mystery, however it’s noteworthy beccasue this film was the one that established Sono as an important voice in cinema, that the West may have had to wait many years for if not for this distributor. Considering the West is where his name is most well-known, culminating in his most recent film Prisoners of the Ghostland which is in English and stars the inimitable Nicolas Cage in the lead role, this initial introduction into the international film circuit is essential in establishing Sono’s name transnationally. Suicide Club had a distinct brand for the festival market: controversy. This film became notorious for its astonishing opening scene and depictions of suicide, while the ambiguity of the plot implied that Sono was more thoughtful than simple notoriety.
Sono’s cinema is one of intense, potent trauma. His films are all in direct reaction to some kind of societal helplessness, the existential dread of being an individual beholden to the immense destitution and devastation of collective demise. Sono made a trilogy of films following the 3/11 Earthquake/Tsunami that spawned the Fukushima nuclear crisis, that are arguably the most bleak of his entire career. His prior trilogy, the “hate” trilogy spanning Love Exposure, Coldfish and Guilty of Romance, explored themes of love and hate through “adapted” stories. The quotes are indicative not of a loose approach to adaptation rather an unconventional and extraordinary one. For Love Exposure he based aspects of the plot after events he had experienced in a cult himself, while Coldfish and Guilty of Romance were based on serial-killer cases famous in Japanese history which he would later return to in his first post-heart attack film The Forest of Love. All of these films deal with some shared cultural trauma in an extremely personal fashion often examining the malaise, apathy and malice that these individuals pursue in efforts to cope with the immense loneliness and spiritual confusion that permeates every corner of their existence. Love Exposure in particular is rather optimistic for a trilogy concerning itself with “hate”, while Coldfish and Guilty of Romance are more desolate and wrenching. This tone would lead him into his post-Fuksuhima movies where Sono revealed the melancholic and morose films he was perhaps always capable of creating. Whereas the “hate” trilogy continually posited that hate itself was the undercurrent beneath the commonality and visibility of evil and that honest feelings like earnestness, love, passion and poignancy are taboo, his Fukushima series are “specifically Japanese counter-futurist documents, questioning the prospect of a future for humanity with the looming threat of nuclear disaster”1. Sono is perhaps most akin to filmmaker Todd Haynes (Dark Waters, Safe for the sake of my analysis) in the sense that they view contemporary society as a pre-apocalyptic site for environmental and spiritual omens. Himizu and The Land of Hope are extremely similar to Dark Waters and the Steven Soderbergh film Contagion as they depict a human apocalypse not as some major cataclysm but as a gradually decaying landscape that is so infected and polluted it holds no possible hope for future enterprises and endeavors.
Sono’s thesis that he concluded upon in his “hate” trilogy is here extended, in a pre-apocalyptic world of pre-Fukushima, the flows of love and compassion were already blocked up, so naturally Himizu picks up with the post-Fukushima world where this dispodent society still reigns, only now it crumbles in the wake of disaster. Characteristically for Sono this film depicts young characters abandoned by the adult world to their own devices. This leads the main character of the film Yuichi into a spiral of madness and spontaneous violence, if the adults have ravaged the world and left it for the youth, he’s enraged about it but sees no target for his actions so after he commits misdeeds, unlike the protagonist in Love Exposure who has the paternal figure of the father (and God) to turn to for unburdening of sin and guilt, Yuichi has no one, not even his parents much less some heavenly father, so in the end his only option for action and responsibility is to turn himself in, to take stock in his own movements and freedom and admit that’s who he is. The conclusion is devastating because Sono sees the young as having nothing but themselves and the good graces of strangers (the group of displaced people living next door to Yuichi). While Himizu was solely a Japanese production, The Land of Hope was a much more transnational picture receiving funding from Japan, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. While Sono is a Japanese filmmaker, his origin story is not without some transnational maneuvering. He spent a year at UC Berkeley watching pornos and B-movies, apparently never attending a single class. Sono’s influences are not as nationally traceable to some cinematic heritage as many auteur’s often are. In this respect The Land of Hope is a return to a discernible “national” style where Sono engages with the “slow” cinema of Yasujiro Ozu.
Himizu is the most obviously “Sion Sono film” of his Fukushima trilogy as The Land of Hope resembles something closer to Yasujiro Ozu or a Hirokazu Koreeda film or even the more sobering works of Nobuhiko Obayashi while The Whispering Star draws from Andrei Tarkovsky’s lengthy tracking shots and ominous silences. While The Land of Hope is conforming to some “national” tradition of aesthetics and pace, it’s thrilling to see a science fiction film rendered in such invisible strokes where the elements of sci-fi are reduced to as minimal and unobtrusive a position as possible. Sono plays the film like a conventional family drama, however, it’s a disaster film where we never see the disaster just the people involved in it and the elongated demise of themselves, their environment and their familial structure. The Whispering Star is much more explicitly a science fiction film, however, no less existentially probing. The film follows an android delivering packages to humans across the galaxy in a spaceship shaped like the interior of a traditional Japanese home. Inside of the parcels are memories in the form of items, where humanity is but a faint hum among the cosmos. While solely a Japanese production this film is transnationally noteworthy for its success and exposure at the Environmental Film Festival in 2016. Considering that Himizu was written before the Fukushima meltdown and then rewritten for the disaster, the ravaging effects of the earthquake and the subsequent aftermath were an inciting incident for creating this trilogy, it’s only natural that the final entry in the series would achieve acclaim in such a context.
The international attention of Sono has only grown since this trilogy perhaps as a result of his incredibly prolific 2015 where he released four films: Love and Peace, Tag, Shinjuku Swan, and The Whispering Star in addition to the two films that are at the beginning and the end of this phase, his 2014 rap-opera Tokyo Tribe and bookended by the miniseries Tokyo Vampire Hotel. The continuity of this era is remarkable for the degree to which Sono’s films were allowed budgets that would fulfill his wild ambitions. Tokyo Tribe is an ambitious endeavor produced by Nikkatsu whom he’d work with again during this period for 2016’s Antiporno. The former is available to stream on Amazon Prime while the latter can be rented for four dollars, Amazon is proving itself to be one of the most convenient places to interact with his work. Apple TV has several of his films, however, at a fairly steep price and even then it’s spots of his work, same goes for YouTube, there is no coherent, easy digital space in which to ingest Sono’s work cohesively, recently he did a collaboration with Arrow Video who streamed four of his films, however, many viewers don’t even know what that is and those films have since been removed from the platform.
This swath of Sono’s career is the most readily available to viewers even if it requires some digging. During this time he collaborated with Sony (Shinjuku Swan), Asmik Ace Entertainment (Love and Peace) and Shochuku in collaboration with Universal Pictures Japan for Tag. All these films are available digitally in the United States, however, Tokyo Vampire Hotel and his more recent Prisoners of Ghostland are perhaps the most explicit efforts by Sono to capture the gaze of a Western audience. Tokyo Vampire Hotel for instance is a bingeable eight episode miniseries designed for contemporary viewing methods, it’s bombastic, loud, extravagant and never boring. Most importantly it’s produced by Amazon who gave the show prime exposure on their streaming platform as they did for another auteur Nicolas Winding Refn just a few years later for Too Old to Die Young and again another year later for Steve McQueen with his Small Axe series. While the three are dissimilar, Tokyo Vampire Hotel, Too Old to Die Young and Small Axe are obvious examples of Amazon investing in transnational prestige auteur television (Refn is Danish and McQueen English). While Sono is undoubtedly the sleaziest of this trio, his appeal on an international level has obviously caught the attention of American producers wishing to capitalize on the next trend. Even his collaboration with Cage strikes just as much as a branding maneuver as it does a talent grab. Advertising two volatile outsiders working on a single flick together is enough to grab the attention of viewers looking for something out of the ordinary.
Guilty or Romance is a particularly interesting transnational case. While the film was financed solely in Japan, the plot is inspired both by real serial murderers that took place in Japan and also by Sion Sono’s favorite book, Kafka’s The Castle. Kafka’s K. searches for meaning and the incalculable divine by attempting (helplessly) to unravel the bizarre bureaucratic mysteries that surround him. The closer he gets to an answer the farther he seems from satisfaction or salvation. Sono applies the titular “castle” metaphor to the elusive sanctuary of love that the characters in this film desperately yearn for. The only crime, as the title alludes to, that any character is guilty of in this film is a desire for love and compassion.
Guilty of Romance displayed the ineptitude of our language to disentangle the complex web of emotion and feeling that springs forth from us when we love and the process of self-hatred we undergo in order to deny ourselves love. As the Izumi character branches out in prositution and provides more people with “love” she begins to bring more “love” back to her home where her romance novel writing husband is stunned and bewildered by the passion that now swells inside of him as well. Love is positioned as a purely positive act, the film is radical because it suggests that we are our own greatest enemies in the quest for love, the only thing holding us back from receiving it is accepting ourselves. Though as the film goes on the risk of losing love to physicality becomes the prime conflict. What was once a language of play is now a display of violence and the debased corruption we force ourselves to endure in order to receive another’s love or embrace. She keeps repeating the phrase “I never should have learned words”, taken from a poem by Ryuichi Tamura, though the sentiment is clear, all words have done is convolute and distort her ability to love rather than giving her the tools in which to articulate the profundity of her emotions, though the poem is in direct contradiction to this. Her patron calls it a “crappy poem” and then she, outraged, slaps him and presses him to the bed, screaming the poem in his face, in spite of what the poem says there is strength in her words, as if she is repeating to herself the negative affirmation that “there is so much I cannot begin to say about love because there’s so much of it, where would I begin?”, in the words of the poem “I stand still inside your tears” and then the next line “I come back alone into your blood”, these words are uttered by Sion Sono’s wife nonetheless as she stares straight into the camera, moments are seldom more poignant.
Transnationally relying on cultural references such as a famous poet or local serial murderers could be argued as “alienating” to foreign audiences, however, the cinema of specificity which Sono has cultivated is his transnational calling card and perhaps why he has not warmed to Japanese audiences. His films offer dense pastiches of cinematic and cultural references, some so personal like Love Exposure that they stem directly from his own life, but also have a more ubiquitous cultural referent, for instance, Japan’s relationship with cults is a storied one, particularly in Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche where the author interviews various individuals affected by the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, Sono is at once expanding upon personal mythology and also on collective cultural trauma. He is confrontational in these encounters, rather than subtly engaging he launches an aesthetic assault on the senses and in the process, on actuality itself. His films are fascinating to transnational audiences because of the extravagant approach to stylization and adaptation. Whereas some filmmakers are frightened by engagement with heavy social topics, particularly when a degree of sacrilegious blasphemy is involved, Sono sees this as a problematic aspect of our love language, our seeming inability to grapple with themes of desperation, hatred, self-destruction and apocalypse. Sono’s voice is so important translationally because of the clarity his style brings to actual events in spite of exaggerating and cinematizing them he allows audiences a lucid window by which to explore deeply embedded cultural traumas.
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- Chang, Kathryn Yalan. “After the Japan 3/11 Disaster: Slow Violence and Slow Living in The Land of Hope and Homeland.” Tamkang Review 47, no. 2 (2017). Gale Literature Resource Center (accessed May 15, 2021). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A607065145/LitRC?u=s1185784&sid=LitRC&xid=edb16b77.
- Kuo, Chia-wen. “Quasi-Bodies and Kafka’s Castle in Sion Sono’s Crime Noir Guilty of Romance (2011)” Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 8, no.1 (2014): 167-181. https://doi.org/10.2478/ausfm-2014-0032
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- Thouny, Christophe. “The Land of Hope Planetary Cartographies of Fukushima, 2012.” Mechademia, Annual 2015, 17+. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed May 28, 2021). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A539214230/AONE?u=s1185784&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=f418bf53.