Sion Sono is a name that might not be immediately recognizable, but absolutely should be. His directorial work has the feeling of Tarantino storytelling turned up to 11 and Kubrick-like attention to detail, all packaged in off-the-wall insane Japanese goodness. He’s shown some brilliant range, from serious pits of depression to light-hearted family comedy, and every one of his films is worth tracking down if only to watch with friends on a movie night.
Here are 7 central examples of his work, where you should start to fall down the crazy rabbit hole.
1. Love Exposure (2008)
Takahiro Nishijima, member of the music group AAA, stars in this 4-hour tour de force as Yu Tsunoda, a 17-year-old student desperately searching for approval from his priest father. Whilst Nishijima has only acted in a few titles, mostly drama series, his performance as Yu shines as he perfectly captures his descent through religion, cult activity, porn studios, and street brawls. Despite sounding incredibly eclectic, everything comes together so perfectly, and even though it might sound insane that Yu goes from priest’s good boy son to an underground fighting hooligan, to a kung-fu upskirt photographer, everything flows so well and you’re left laughing and crying along with the film.
The film takes a boy’s struggles with religion, purpose and his love for his ‘Maria’ Yoko played by Hikari Mitsushima (Death Note, Tormented) and finds how that process is perverted when circumstances are brought to extremes. Everything collapses in on Yu’s life, he’s forced into action as his family and love are both torn from him by the creepy cult “Zero Church.” This film has a bit of something for everyone, and is an emotional rollercoaster throughout, quite possibly one of the best films ever created.
2. Himizu (2012)
Sion Sono loves to deal with incredibly heavy issues within the lives of the youth of Japan, and Himizu could possibly be the heaviest of all his films. This film marked the beginning of a long and beautiful working relationship and friendship between Sono and actors Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido. Watching this after Love Exposure is a treat, as Takahiro Nishijima makes a cameo as a street performer.
Shota Sometani stars as Yuichi Sumida, a 14-year-old boy who just seems to want a consistent and quiet life. He and his mother run a boat rental house, whilst his mostly absent father is a drunk who’s in money trouble with the yakuza. Fumi Nikaido plays Keiko Chazawa, a same-age girl whose parents desperately want her to kill herself to be out of their lives. The cinematography is absolutely on point throughout this whole movie, and Sometani and Nikaido’s performances only heighten the emotional devastation this movie brings on. Much less zany than other Sono films, but the poetry and scenes giving the actors full power to carry the moment shape a distinctly Sono story. The Sumida breakdown scenes, the first interaction between him and the yakuza, when Keiko’s parents show her the gallows they were building for her and the entirety of the finale, every scene holds so much weight and it’s guaranteed to bring the tears out.
3. Love & Peace (2015)
Usually, Sono deals with incredibly heavy issues with a focus on ‘ero-guro,’ the sexual side of things, and the violence. Love & Peace is very off-type in that regard, instead, this is a delightful family romance/comedy. Kaiju turtles, David Bowie references, living toys, and a kind man with magic formulas who just may literally be Santa Claus, it’s all the elements core to Sono all wrapped in a hilarious punk-rock opera.
Hiroki Hasegawa (Shin Godzilla, Attack On Titan, Princess Jellyfish) stars as Ryoichi Suzuki, a bit of a loser in a job where most of his coworkers hate him. He’s got feelings for one of his other shy coworkers, Yuko Terajima played by Kumiko Aso (Kairo, Kaidan, The Actor), but is too afraid to tell her how he feels. One day he finds a man strangely selling turtles, and decides to buy one, which starts an unbelievable series of events. He brings the turtle with him to work, and everyone starts to make fun of him, causing him to sadly flush it down the office toilet, and in his depression, he wanders the streets only to be forced to perform with a street punk band. Keep in mind, this is still the set-up to the film, and from here we get into the punk-rock opera, Ryoichi becoming a Japanese David Bowie, and the turtle (named Pikadon, the noise typically used to describe a nuclear explosion) washes up in the sewers with a bunch of toys and animals that have been brought to life and given a voice by a strange homeless man who may just turn out to be literally Santa. A feel-good, wacky, and delightful family movie that has some catchy as hell music, definitely one that should make it onto your Christmas must-watch list!
4. Tag (2015)
Tag, or Chasing World, or Riarru Onigokko, is a surrealist gory horror film with strong feminist themes weaved through its trippy world-hopping plot. The imagery alone in this film is stunning enough to warrant a watch, and anyone with an interest in surrealism, horror or world-line changing themes will get a kick out of this one. Tag also bleeds Sono thematically, with ero-guro at the absolute core of the entire film. ‘Riarru Onigokko’ was a series of films based around the idea of there being more than one timeline, and one or more person capable of travelling between them or forced to travel between them, often with overbearing authority ruling over the new world, this series spanned 5 films and one TV series before Sono got his hands on it for a remake, making it his own.
Reina Triendl (Ju-On: The Beginning Of The End, Terrace House), Mariko Shinoda (former member of AKB48), and Erina Mano (one of Sono’s chosen ones, former member of Hello! Project) all play the central figure, who takes on the name of whoever she is within the world she falls into. We follow this character as she changes, and through many different terrifying powers that set out to kill her. We start with a killer wind, slicing a bus clean in half with Mitsuko (Triendl) the only survivor, to all her teachers at school pulling out automatic weapons and opening fire on the students, to a very messed up wedding party complete with a literal pig-headed groom, straight into a marathon. A hell of a ride all the way through, an ambitious surreal film that seems to give more and more the deeper you go into it.
5. Why Don’t You Play In Hell (2013)
It’s a movie about a group of no-hoper film lovers, a nervy loser and a beautiful but wicked woman who are fated lovers, and a martial artist forced into making a film of two yakuza clans fighting to the death… And that’s all a movie too? A hilarious, bloody, and utterly enjoyable film with a plot only Sono would form.
There are quite a few familiar faces in this film from other Sono works, pre and post this title. Hiroki Hasegawa (Love & Peace) plays the slightly deranged and utterly obsessed Director Hirata who finally gets his dream, years and years on into a seemingly dead-end life of attempts at film-making. Fumi Nikaido (Himizu) plays Michiko, the badass daughter of the boss of a faction of yakuza who at first uses the awkward Koji Hashimoto (played by Gen Hoshino, who also appeared as a voice in Love & Peace) to get back at her previous lover and as a tool in her refusal of her father’s demands for her. Tak Sakaguchi (who worked on Love Exposure’s fight choreography) also plays Sasaki, a man who grew up with the ‘Fuck Bombers,’ the aspiring film crew, and idolizing Bruce Lee. And just to top it off, the yakuza boss, Michiko’s father Muto, is played by the legendary Jun Kunimura (Kill Bill, Audition, dozens more high profile credits). This film is a riot, not dealing with the same heavy issues Sono explores in other works, but instead keeping levels of negative emotions present whilst never stopping the laughs.
6. Tokyo Tribe (2014)
Tokyo Tribe, never ever die! A rap musical, isn’t that enough to suck you in? Quite literally a musical, with a fairly constant stream of songs and performances that bring us through the narrative. This is coupled with brutal action scenes with great choreography (and just maybe a few goofy ones involving giant whirring blades and a minigun…) and stellar acting performances from the mixed cast of actors and underground Japanese rap artists. KOHH and Young Dais are just some of the bigger named rappers present in the film, and you wouldn’t know this isn’t their full-time profession from how they fuse their craft with acting.
The film is set in a seedy future Tokyo, where gangs have separated the city and violence and debauchery are abound. The start of the film is iconic to any Sono fan, zooming down to see Shota Sometani, our guide through the insanity, in the crowded and always active streets. MC Sho, as his character is named, acts as a strange mix of actual character and a narrator outside the influence of the other characters. There are scenes where he walks boldly through enemy territory, giving a stellar performance in his almost deadpan rap as he informs the viewer of what’s going on and where, then we see him do the same but actively hit the bad guys out of the way towards the end of the film, as well as interacting outside of narration with his own crew. A story of the mean streets, a dirty city, gang violence, and somewhere along the line penis size that pushes the crazy to 11 and then much further past it.
7. The Virgin Psychics (2015)
Definitely not Sono’s most shining example of plot or subversive content, but an incredibly good time and a continuation of the commentary on modern Japan (and a little bit of how far he could push the TV station in terms of content). This film is a retelling and re-imagining of the TV show Minna! Esper Dayo! The Virgin Psychics is all about youth, sexuality, sci-fi powers, sexuality, romance, and oh, did I mention sexuality? At first glance the film, and TV show, could be summed up as almost exclusively fan-servicey softcore porn, but Sono takes this pink-cinema side of things and covers it in a layer of sci-fi comedy that ends as not a clever and deep story, but an incredibly fun time that lets the actors have as much fun with their roles as the viewer has watching.
Shota Sometani, Sono’s right hand man when it comes to stars for his films, plays Yoshiro Kamogawa, a high school boy who one day (along with several classmates, his adult friend who owns a coffee shop, and his childhood friend) mysteriously gains a psychic power during the night. It’s later realized that the reason they all got the powers at the same time had something to do with a passing comet and the fact they were all masturbating at the same time. Yoshiro gains mind-reading abilities, along with his childhood friend Miyuki Hirano (played by Elaiza Ikeda), whilst Teru (played by Makita Sports), the coffee shop owner, gains telekinesis… As long as he uses it in some way relating to erotica or in a sexual way. Mano Erina plays the girl who Yoshiro has an almost debilitating crush on, Sae Asami, and her father becomes the leader and mentor of the group who now find themselves with supernatural powers. Yoshiro is determined to save the world, but when trouble actually finds its way to them his awkwardness battles with his will to be the hero. Between the show and the film, the film has a much more centered plot and details the group’s growth and interactions quite well, whilst the show goes through many different adventures (and also features a different actress for Miyuki), both are worth a watch if you can track them down.
There are certainly more films, from Suicide Circle to Cold Fish to Guilty of Romance… But these films hook you in, and soon you’ll be tracking down whatever Sono movie you can. There are elements of ‘pink cinema,’ ‘ero-guro,’ and that new age love for cinema that shines through modern auteurs’ work. These are the sorts of films you could show your friends to laugh along with the crazy ‘Japanese-ness’ of the entire thing, but ones that also have incredibly solid bases that make Sono one of the most creative and talented directors around. If you’re craving weird Japanese cinema with seriously unique storylines, but still want brilliant direction and vision, look no further than the works of Sion Sono.
- Shane Dover