Pin It
The Prisoners of Ghostland – Sion Sono4

How Japanese provocateur Sion Sono made Nicolas Cage’s wildest film

The Prisoners of the Ghostland is a bonkers sci-fi comedy starring Cage as a convicted bank robber with grenades strapped to his testicles

“When I was 17, I joined a cult because I was completely skint,” Sion Sono casually tells me, via an interpreter, from his home in Tokyo. “I didn’t have any money to buy food. Before I joined, a cult member told me that food would be provided. I really enjoyed eating there – but I didn’t enjoy all the things that came with it.” In order to escape, he had to join another cult. “Love Exposure and Suicide Club were heavily influenced by my experiences there.”

Cults and gangs, particularly their allure to alienated teenagers, occur throughout Sono’s filmography. In Love Exposure, Zero Church prey on young loners deprived of affection. In Noriko’s Dinner Table, a 17-year-old girl runs away to join strangers she’s met online. In both Suicide Club and The Forest of Love, uniformed students hold hands and leap to their death. In Sono’s latest film, Prisoners of the Ghostland, a woman flees her hometown and home-dimension to cohabitate with the undead in a parallel world known as Ghostland – it’s destined to become a cult movie in more ways than one.

Starring Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella, Prisoners of the Ghostland marks Sono’s first American feature – with a caveat. The bonkers sci-fi crime-comedy was actually shot in Japan, all the extras are Japanese, and it climaxes with samurai swordfights. Chameleonic in its genre, the supernatural western juggles crude humour (women critique the ergonomics of Cage’s penis) with poignant reflections on Fukushima (time is literally frozen to prevent another nuclear explosion). Really, it’s a Sion Sono film that happens to have Nicolas Cage on board, rather than the other way around.

“When I met Nicolas Cage for the first time, he told me he was a big fan of my films,” Sono says. “I asked him which ones he liked best, and he said Antiporno and Noriko’s Dinner Table. I thought he would say something (more known) like Love Exposure.”

Sono, who’s now 59, started out as a part-time poet and part-time pornographer. For the past two decades, though, the Japanese provocateur has specialised in depicting the collapse of family dynamics and traditional values in his home country – whether it’s through incest, murder, or, in Exte, a sexual fetish for a corpse’s hair. So much so, Sono used to refer to himself as “anti-Ozu”, claiming that real Japanese households don’t resemble Ozu dramas. But when I speak to him in early September over Zoom, he claims, “Maybe, during an interview, I might have said something like that. I’m not completely anti-Ozu, but I have some reservations.”

Regardless, Prisoners of the Ghostland is Sono’s Tokyo story, not Ozu’s. As a sign of the plot’s absurdity, Cage plays Hero, a convicted bank robber who’s locked up in the East-meets-West mashup that is Samurai Town. However, Hero is offered a shorter prison sentence by the Governor (Bill Moseley) if he can rescue the latter’s missing granddaughter, Beatrice (Boutella). The catch? Hero is strapped with various bombs that will detonate if he takes longer than five days, or, in the case of the grenades attached to his testicles, if little Nic gets too excited in its cage – after an early encounter with Beatrice, Hero has a literal explosion in his pants.

“When Nicolas Cage’s ball explodes, I didn’t have to direct him,” Sono beams like a proud father. “He did that acting by himself. That was one take, and that was it. I was really happy with him.” In Sono’s comedies like The Virgin Psychics, the protagonists tend to exert outsized, melodramatic performances, and Cage, with his bulging eyes and manic grin, fits like a screaming glove. “Sometimes I direct every single scene to the actor. Another style is like you’re watching animals in a zoo, and you film whatever they’re doing – this film was the latter.

“When I saw Nicolas Cage in Tokyo a year before shooting, he mentioned wanting to be like Charles Bronson. I was already thinking that from the script. We clicked immediately and our chemistry was amazing. I thought it’d be a waste to direct him when we have a similar feeling together. I tried not to do anything, and let him do whatever he wanted for the film.”

While Sono has written or cowritten nearly all of the 50-plus projects he’s directed, Prisoners of the Ghostland is credited to Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safri. “It was originally more tame and a normal action film,” Sono says. “But I added a little bit of weirdness.” For nearly two decades, Sono has been attempting to shoot an America movie. When promoting Love Exposure in 2008, he mentioned adapting the book Lords of Chaos in several interviews. “I actually did a script and went to auditions in America,” Sono says. “But it didn’t work.” (Jonas Åkerlund eventually made Lords of Chaos with Sky Ferreira.)

“When Nicolas Cage’s ball explodes, I didn’t have to direct him. He did that acting by himself. That was one take, and that was it. I was really happy with him” – Sion Sono

However, Prisoners of the Ghostland is arguably less American than Hazard, Sono’s 2005 thriller that was shot in New York, albeit mostly in Japanese. Originally, Prisoners was meant to be filmed in Mexico, with Imogen Poots as Beatrice; during preproduction in early 2019, though, Sono suffered a heart attack and was technically dead for 60 seconds. The shoot was delayed.

“My heart attack changed everything in terms of the film,” Sono explains. “I was going to shoot it as a spaghetti western. But Nicolas Cage was really worried about my health. He suggested we do the shooting in Japan. So I changed the script into a samurai action instead of a spaghetti western.”

Thus in Ghostland, Hero discovers that the majority, living or dead, speak fluent Japanese. In the apocalyptic wasteland, the DIY fashion – a blend of Mad Max and Sono’s hip-hop musical Tokyo Tribe – consists of found objects strung together, the more colourful and garish the better. In one corner, an amateur theatre group perform a history of Ghostland to whoever’s walking past; in another, locals have literally frozen time by yanking the second hand of a creaky, oversized clock. No wonder, then, that Cage, on stage at a festival, claimed, “This might be the wildest film I’ve ever made, and that’s saying something.”

However, Sono is less hyperbolic about where it ranks on the weirdness scale within his own filmography. “My past films that I’ve produced in Japan are a lot wilder and crazier in my opinion,” Sono says. “I thought if I completely went full-on for my first Hollywood movie, then maybe the American people would back off a little bit. I thought that I should introduce myself, little by little.”

Even Sono’s more accessible features aren’t exactly multiplex fare. In my previous introduction feature to Sono, I recommended Love Exposure (a four-hour epic about cross-dressing, upskirt photography, and Catholic guilt), Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (guerrilla filmmakers literally die for their art) and Tag (a school bus is sliced horizontally in half, killing everybody apart from a girl who picked up a pen). Deeper cuts include his gay porno Phallus: The Man, his black-and-white sci-fi The Whispering Star, and his family-friendly Christmas fable Love & Peace – a tortoise is flushed down the toilet and becomes the world’s greatest songwriter.

In fact, Sono’s filmography is so vast and varied, they also contradict each other. Amidst the complaints that Sono delights in objectifying women, critics have also praised the Japanese auteur as a feminist figure. When I ask if he agrees with the latter, he says, “Any word ending with an ‘ist’, I really, really hate. So I wouldn’t call myself a feminist. Obviously, it’s really, really important how you see women, and I think I’m consciously taking a feminist approach in films like Tag or Antiporno or Love Exposure. So you can say there’s feminism in it. But I don’t really want to say that I’m a feminist.”

“I thought if I completely went full-on for my first Hollywood movie, then maybe the American people would back off a little bit. I thought that I should introduce myself, little by little” – Sion Sono

Either way, in the streaming age, Sono is rapidly infiltrating living rooms, not just the Midnight Madness slot at festivals. In 2017, he wrote and directed Tokyo Vampire Hotel (it’s literally set inside a princess’s vagina) for Amazon Prime; in 2019, he made The Forest of Love for Netflix (though I recommend The Forest of Love: Deep Cut, the 278-minute version also released by Netflix in 2020); and now there’s Cage’s face plastered all over his posters.

“It’s not going to affect anything,” Sono says of his rising popularity. “My style is my style. Sion Sono is Sion Sono. But one thing I’m really worried about is that my enthusiastic fans who’ve been watching my films for years and years, they might turn their backs on me (if I become too famous). They’re going to stop watching my films, or they’re going to stop entirely being my fans. That’s my greatest fear at the moment.”

For now, Sono is planning to shoot a film on actual America soil, the description of which doesn’t sound exactly anti-Ozu. “It’s going to be a Hollywood film. But instead of the horror or action films that Japanese directors normally do in Hollywood, this is more of a drama narrative. So a non-action, non-horror, drama-based film. Then probably the one after that, I’m going to show myself as Sion Sono, and I’m going to make all the American people shiver. They will see the real Sion Sono the one after the next.”

Until then, there’s Prisoners of the Ghostland, a colourful dreamworld that toys with hallucinations, the pausing of time, and, with its spirits and zombielike weirdoes, what happens when we kick the bucket. I ask Sono how much of it was influenced by his near-death experience. “I saw my afterlife when I was dead for a bit, when I had my heart attack,” Sono says. “But this film, it’s more like hell, isn’t it? It’s not like heaven.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to heaven, because I haven’t done any wrongdoings so far in my life.’ I actually went up, instead of going down, when I was dead for a while. And I saw a beautiful universe there – instead of looking at a hell like Ghostland. The things I saw in my afterlife were a lot more beautiful and lovelier, actually.”

Prisoners of the Ghostland is out in cinemas and on digital on September 17