Part of this year’s 10th Anniversary Japan Cuts festival of Japanese film is a mini focus on outspoken rabble-rouser Sion Sono. It’s a fitting addition to a landmark edition of the festival, which has shown numerous films by the prolific director whose works have jarred, delighted, and flabbergasted their audiences for the past several years. It also jels perfectly with the festival’s unstated theme of radicals and rascally revolutionaries, running through both its narrative and nonfiction selections. Sono’s uncompromising attitude and artistic work puts him right at home in this group.
Three films may not seem sufficient to give him his due. But considering this isn’t a full on retrospective (the last to occur in New York was at the Museum of Design in 2011), the trio of works being shown on July 16 – 2 of his recent films plus a documentary made about him, along with an appearance by Sono himself, do form an elegant statement.
THE SION SONO (directed by Arata Oshima) takes an insightful look at the philosophies and working process of the man, mainly by spending time with him and letting him speak – something he does not mind doing at all. Perspective can also be gleaned by talks with those who have worked closely with him. While Sono’s contemptuous attitude toward widely accepted commercial films and critics are well known but amusing to see unfold – we all like someone who names names – real illumination comes in the opening sequence of the film wherein Sono prowls through his studio filled with paintings and sets to work on some of them while deconstructing notions of good and bad. It’s a multilayered act, as the artist appears to reacquaint himself with his work in this medium, engage in the process while discussing it.
The intensity of feelings burning in and around his brought to the surface, not only in hearing from the director himself, but emotional conversations held with Megumi Kagurazaka his wife and an actress that has figured prominently into many key roles in his films, including WHISPERING STARS. She will also appear in person for its screening on the 16th.
Amusing testimonials on Sono’s singular quirks and compulsions come from Fumi Nikaido and Shota Sometani, who speak of their work on Sono’s critically acclaimed HIMIZU. And lest one has been taken primarily with Sono’s ‘bad boy’ image, there is a decided charm to be found in a glimpse of Sono’s earliest activity, which holds uncanny earnest. A very early journal of movie going with collage elements and reviews show signs of a connoisseur and voice of remarkable wit in the making.
THE WHISPERING STAR is made all the more interesting for the insight we may gain from the documentary, which features footage from the planning stages of this stark exploration of the science fiction genre. There is not much to speak of plot, which finds an android with extremely human qualities (Kagurazaka) as an intergalactic courier in the wake of civilizational collapse. The film is shot in a mesmerizing monochrome. Here Kaguraka’s subtly expressive voyager, taking in this new world around her with understated wonderment and consternation, is also entrancing against the overall static unfolding of events.
These are accompanied by LOVE AND PEACE. Released in 2015, it is too early to call it one of his classics, but by all rights this will be one. It is essential viewing, not only for Sono fans but anyone with an interest in Japanese cinema. But in terms of the director, it prominently features so many hallmarks of that have distinguished his work, with a notable absence of lurid violence or sex. There is what I’ve come to refer to as a ‘psychodramatic’ style that Sono employs, wherein personal trauma is magnified by key characters to the point of feeling like a large scale devastation. Music turned way up in the mix pulses and pounds, extreme closeups turn bystanders and casual tormentors alike into grotesque monsters and capture every detail of the actor, who has apparently been told to exaggerate mannerisms to cartoonish proportions, and regular scenery is augmented by vibrant colors. All the while scenes are sped through quickly, highlighting only those that emphasize the character’s plight.
This only describes the first 10 minutes or so of LOVE AND PEACE, during which a fumbling menial worker at the offices of a recording studio dreams of rock stardom and pines after a subdued colleague (Kumiko Aso) while serving as the punchline of the office jokes. But with a bit fantasy and Sono’s panache for plot progressions both imaginatively far fetched and compelling, his fate takes a turn for the better. It is a rise and rise story that ends up a unique twist on the usual convention of exploding egos leading to an inevitable fall.
The incorporation of diverse musical pieces that are pitch perfect fits is another attribute of Sono’s films in peak form and here it occurs both within and without the story. Aside from wonderfully catchy rock anthems that our down on his luck protagonist begins to magically produce, background music provides numerous callbacks to previous films. Viewers of the director’s numerous works are rewarded in spades, with a rousing callback to the infectious jingle that rang throughout WHY DON’T YOU GO PLAY IN HELL.
While the story has feel good elements, it is far from slight. Throughout the movie, scenes that may seem like background noise show Japanese youth with a general lack of awareness about the atom bomb’s treacherous role in the country’s history. Names are also used to show misunderstandings or perhaps a repurposing of history’s scars. Then there is Sono’s unprecedented incorporation of elements straight out of Western imports like Toy Story, a representation of Disney and Pixar both. When this comes to clash with mass destruction ala quintessentially Japanese kaiju movies, it is as though the collective Japanese self identity and its subjection to Western influences is being exploded onto a moving canvas. Who wins may come as a surprise. It is heady thought provoking stuff works on the mind while the personal story of sad sack turned star stirs the emotions.
For tickets and information on these and other films in the JAPAN CUTS lineup, visit the Japan Society website.