Is he a feminist or a misogynist? Is the violence exploitative or satirical? Here’s where to start with Japan’s most transgressive director
Sion Sono is not for everybody, and that’s kinda the point. The subversive Japanese filmmaker, who proudly calls himself the anti-Ozu, takes pleasure in pushing buttons, breaking rules and being as esoteric as possible. Too extreme for the mainstream, he’s a gifted provocateur with his own niche. Having once claimed he hates Japanese movies because “[they] have no poison”, his films instead cover subjects such as incest (Strange Circus), a serial killer with a hair fetish (Exte), and what happens if a cosmic light were to pass Earth and all the horny teens masturbating during that specific moment were to gain telekinetic powers (The Virgin Psychics).
So for those who can stomach Sono’s mischief, there’s a vast, eclectic filmography to explore. He’s the kind of cult figure whose most popular movie, Love Exposure, is a four-hour anti-rom-com that tackles teen alienation and upskirt photography while pulling off sincere dialogue like: “Become erect with your heart.” Thus, controversy follows him around. Depending on who you ask, his films are feminist or misogynistic; the violence is exploitative or satirical; the humour is puerile or a total hoot. What’s undeniable, though, is that Sono, a juggler of tones, knows how to entertain and spark a post-screening conversation.
Sono’s latest film, Antiporno, soon to be exclusively streamable on MUBI, will likely cause debate, not just thematically but because its dreamlike logic leaves everything open for interpretation. Set inside what looks like an S&M snowglobe, the hypnotic head-scratcher depicts the power struggle between Kyoko, a novelist, and Noriko, her suffering assistant; when Kyoko orders her lackey to crawl on all fours, she obeys. So far, so Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. But then we realise it’s a film-within-a-porno-film, and Kyoko is actually a novice actress bullied behind the scenes by Noriko.
With about five more baffling twists to follow, Antiporno evolves into a damning deconstruction of the adult industry. What’s more, Sono does it within the context of a recent reboot of Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno series – a genre of “romantic porn” that battled Japanese censorship in the 70s. For whatever reason, Nikkatsu has commissioned five new Roman Porno movies – including Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind – and like a pervy Dogme 95, they have one rule: there must be a sex scene every 10 minutes. Well, I can confirm that, from experience, Antiporno is extremely NSFCS (Not Safe For Coffee Shops).
But with 38 full-length features attached to Sono’s name, where does one start? The prolific auteur has made 10 movies since 2015, as well as Tokyo Vampire Hotel, a nine-part series he wrote and directed for Amazon. “With an album you have about 12 songs,” Sono believes. “So why not have 12 films in a year, like 12 songs on an album?” Bearing that in mind, these are the gems we recommend you seek out first.
WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)
If you’re a complete beginner to the Sono-verse, then this outlandish, blood-soaked crime-comedy – a heady cocktail of Rushmore, 8½, and Kill Bill – serves as an excellent entry point. More overtly humorous than the director’s more experimental work, the gory story follows the Fuck Bombers, a ragtag group of guerrilla filmmakers, on their mission to shoot a movie on 35mm. Led by Hirata, a Tarantino wannabe in a Cannes t-shirt, they orchestrate and document a real-life battle between two warring Yakuza gangs. The Fuck Bombers, basically, are prepared to die for the sake of some nifty handheld footage.
Along with ridiculous subplots involving a toothpaste jingle and a runaway teen actress, Sono gleefully draws parallels between movie execs and organised crime: Muto, a murderous kingpin boss, reads a paperback copy of Filmmaking 101 and subsequently demands creative control over the project’s execution. Above all, it’s endlessly quotable: “We can fuck over the Ikegami Yakuza and the movie industry!”
LOVE EXPOSURE (2008)
Now you’re warmed up, it’s time for Sono’s four-hour masterpiece. Preposterous and yet deeply moving, Love Exposure depicts a fucked-up love triangle between three teens rebelling against their Christian parents: Yu, the son of a Catholic priest, feels compelled to sin and develops a passion for peek-a-panty photography; Aya, with scissors, cuts off her sleeping father’s erect penis (the hard-on is pixelated, but the spurting blood isn’t); meanwhile, Yoko disavows every man who isn’t Jesus Christ or Kurt Cobain, and is then lured by Aya into a brainwashing group called the Zero Church.
Sono, himself, ran away from home at 17 to join – and later escape from – a religious cult, which may explain the overwhelming teen angst on display. But Sono is also a wildly creative artist at the peak of his powers. Despite its running time, the action-packed movie – nearly released as a six-hour epic – is exhilarating and emotionally complex from start to finish. Plus, it’s hard to fault a film that waits 58 minutes for its opening credits.
SUICIDE CLUB (2001)
After nearly two decades of obscurity (including 1985’s I Am Sion Sono!!), Sono’s international breakthrough was Suicide Club, a chilling, beguiling exploration of the destructive loneliness that purveys Japanese culture and a poignant warning that the country’s youth are being pushed to the edge. Or just a blatant provocation from a little-known filmmaker using shocking, ero guro imagery to attract overseas attention.
Either way, Suicide Club is undoubtedly fascinating for how many questions are left unexplained. In its opening scene, 54 smiling schoolgirls hold hands at Shinjuku Station, wait at the platform, and leap in front of a train. As blood splatters everywhere, a song by J-pop band Desert is overlaid. Could their lyrics contain coded messages? Or are their young, internet-savvy fans just part of a lonely, detached subsection of society? Meanwhile, a set of detectives race against the mounting body count and encounter numerous red herrings, including an incongruous Bowie-esque glam rocker with a literal cult following.
If Sono directed an episode of Black Mirror, it would look like Tag. In the opening sequence, a gust of wind slices off the top half of a school bus, graphically slaughtering every passenger inside. Well, most of them. Amidst the array of unattached torsos is Mitsuko, a lucky (or unlucky?) teen who bent down to pick up a pen at the exact right moment. From there, bloodshed relentlessly follows her around, until she switches her body and transforms into another actress. And then it continues. Both you and her wonder: will this Funny Games-esque nightmare ever end?
But Tag is a movie with brains – not just the ones splattered all over the floor – and it gradually reveals itself to be an introspective attack on misogyny in videogames and genre movies. To explain more would ruin the twist (hence the Black Mirror comparison) but rest assured, if you can make it through all the carnage, it’s a film you’ll be recommending and passing on. At the very least, you can play the beginning sequence to an unsuspecting friend and take joy from their mortified response.
TOKYO TRIBE (2014)
“Tokyo Tribe / Never ever die!” Belonging to a genre of its own, Tokyo Tribe is best described as a raunchy, kung-fu, yakuza, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, battle-rap musical comedy extravaganza. Even for Sono’s standards, it’s over the top. The plot – essentially a playful riff on The Warriors – introduces rival Tokyo gangs, each with their own distinctive hip-hop style, who team up to protect the city from a wealthy cannibal. The source of conflict? “It ain’t dick size that matters,” argues Kai, “it’s the size of your heart.”
The knowingly silly dialogue, which rhymes, is hilariously rapped by an ensemble comprising actors and real MCs. But the main attraction is the neon-lit soundstage sets. Teeming with colourful, cartoonish detail, Sono’s futuristic interpretation of Tokyo looks like someone vomited Skittles everywhere and populated it with manga characters. Look out for a DJ who, as she spins a record, announces, “Cop these slammin’ beats from the ass-end of hell.”
Antiporno will be available via streaming on MUBI on December 8