The Sion Sono (2015)

Sion Sono is a prolific director, having made over 40 films in his career. He came to prominence through gory horror films such as “Suicide Club”, but he has created works in several genres, comedies like “Love & Peace”, a hip-hop musical “Tokyo Tribe”, and more dramatic works such as “Himizu” and “Cold Fish” (inspired partly by real world events). The film discusses the fact that he is hard to categorise, in some ways having created a category all of his own, the “Sion Sono” film. He is an auteur, both writing and directing many of his projects. However, Sono admits that he has enjoyed more fame and success abroad than in Japan, suggesting that the Japanese film industry tends to shy away from films that show the country in a bad light. His focus on sex, violence, pornography, crime, and other taboo subjects have helped to turn him into a cult star rather than a mainstream success. But it clear from this documentary that success is not something that Sono feels is the most important thing in life. We see early on his disordered studio, with large canvases strewn around and wild impressionistic scribblings across them and slap-dash calligraphy pinned to the wall. We witness an amusing scene as Sono attempts to explain something of his process, and his philosophy, to the cameraman, as he daubs paint on a canvas, in a haphazard way, creating some sort of story in his own mind as he goes, and discussing the purity of the canvas being despoiled by his paint. Rather than strive for perfection he belives true beauty lies in these imperfections, lives that are full of mistakes and rectifications. Later on he suggests that he values quantity over quality, inverting the familiar in his own controversial style he seems to be determinedly set against mainstream expectations. Sono’s primary drive is to create. As he say himself, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, humans are here to create, to express themselves, and to live. It is a chaotic philosophy but it appears to have paid off for the director. Despite many in the film suggesting he should have become famous sooner than he did, his recent celebrity due to several fantastic films in a short span of years has ensured his place in the pantheon of top directors.

The film follows Sono through a year of his life as he works on “The Whispering Star” (2015) and talks about many of his other works. There are interviews with Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido (co-stars in Himizu), his wife and actress in the Whispering Star, Megumi Kagurazaka, producers, friends, and even his sister. Together they paint a picture of a man who is slightly eccentric, incredibly driven, passionate about his work, kind, and with a love of film stretching back to his childhood. During the segment with his sister he digs through old notebooks, showing his early film criticism, including a “Sion Sono” awards with Best Picture, Actress and Actor awards. There is also fascinating insight into how he creates his work, looking round sets, frantically scribbling down storyboards, dictating a precis of a new film to his assistant. In some of the most powerful scenes of the film we see Sono and his team in Fukushima, the area devastated by a nuclear plant explosion and which featured as a backdrop in both Himizu and The Whispering Star. As he speaks to locals, some of whom he recruits to act in his movie, we hear of their loss following the tsunami that destroyed their homes and businesses. Although the film doesn’t go into this in great detail it is clear that Sono feels this is an important issue to highlight. In fact this segment stands as a great documentary in itself on the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

A great behind-the-scenes look at how this director works, his formative experiences, philosophy and creativity. Sono says that the only thing that concerns him is making interesting films, whether they succeed or fail financially. This documentary is certainly interesting, offering a great insight into a director with a unique vision.

The Whispering Star (2015)

Yoko works for the Space Postal Service, delivering packages to distant planets. Her only companion is the onboard computer, which seems to be malfunctioning. Yoko is a humanoid robot who spends her days engaged in everyday chores, making tea, cleaning the ship, and listening to old tapes that she recorded detailing her travels. This existence is punctuated by her arrival on a number of different planets where she must deliver packages to humans sent from relatives. We discover early on that due to some unknown catastrophe many of the humans in the universe are dead, meaning planets are sparsely inhabited and people separated by great distances. Yoko interacts with several of these people as she performs her duties, before setting off again in her ship. Throughout she wonders why it is that humans, and only humans, feel a need to send each other things.

Shot in black-and-white the film is based on a very early story idea from director Sion Sono. Better known for his violent and outrageous films, this film seems somewhat unusual in his filmography. The Whispering Star is a very contemplative film, with little dialogue for long stretches, but it does a great job of visual storytelling and finding humour and interest in seemingly everyday things. An early example of this is the dripping tap on the spaceship. Intercut with title cards showing passing days, Sono manages to convey the length of time spent on a ship, the out-of-place feeling occasioned by a lack of reference in space, it melds humour and melancholy perfectly without the need for dialogue or explanation. Many more scenes follow this pattern, using repetition of chores to highlight the monotony of Yoko’s journey. The set design of the ship is charmingly retro, with inside and out looking like a traditional home, complete with sink, plug sockets and things which again give the film a wry comedic edge when the audience contemplates the absurdity of such a set-up. It harkens back to old science-fiction films, and could easily have been made at any time in the last half century. The ship computer is likewise reminiscent of a traditional, early 20th century view of the future, with flashing lights and an old fashioned radio design. The terrestrial scenes were shot around Fukushima, with its abandoned towns and decimated landscapes providing a poignant backdrop for the drama. This also allows for some incredible shots without the use of special effects or set-dressing, such as boats grounded in the middle of a field, crumbling buildings and deserted streets. The cinematography is spectacular and each scene is shot with care. Megumi Kagurazaka is incredible as Yoko and carries the film for large parts single-handedly. Despite being trapped with her on the ship for long stretches, there is enough nuance and charisma in her performance that it is not hard to spend so much time with her.

The Whispering Star is a film about isolation and a post-apocalyptic society still clinging to some sense of normality. The small communities scattered throughout the universe are attempting to reach out to one another through sending gifts and this speaks powerfully to the human urge to social interaction. Life is fragile and transitory and it is during this brief span that humans must attempt to connect and make sense of their surroundings. It is also a film about memory and the past. As Yoko listens to her recordings we are forced to think about time passing, again referenced by the eternally dripping tap on the ship. The passage of time is important as it takes so long for Yoko to travel to each destination. The finale of the film is a spectacular sequence that wordlessly takes Yoko on a journey through various stages of life, though expressed almost as a shadow-play while Yoko herself is at the forefront. Each of the worlds Yoko travels to seems to be only an echo of what it used to be. In one scene she arrives late to deliver a package, again emphaising the importance of time, and the urgency of humans to live their lives.

Antiporno (2016)

When our heroine Kyoko wakes up in a mysterious room, painted bright yellow with an adjoining red bathroom, it is not immediately apparent whether this is reality or a dream. This sense of unease continues throughout a plot that moves rapidly from sequence to sequence following its own ‘dream-logic’ that intertwines flashbacks, hallucinations, fourth-wall breaking, and heartfelt soliloquising from Kyoko. The film revolves around Kyoko (Ami Tomite), an author who paints out her characters on large canvasses before writing her novels. Kyoko spends the majority of the film in this unreal space, met by her assistant, journalist, camera woman, and the film is as much about what is going on in her head as in the real world. The plot is hard to explain without giving away the more enjoyable twists and turns of this psychological drama.

Writer and director Sion Sono creates an unsettling yet compelling world that is constantly surprising the audience. The stylish sets help create an intriguing theatre-like space along with the classical score giving the whole film the feeling of a performance. Antiporno is a reflection on soft-core pornography, and it takes its subject seriously, unpacking various issues associated with pornography in society. The characters are intended more as archetypes than with any real backstory. Ami Tomite gives a stunning performance as Kyoko, whose shifting character evokes sympathy and revulsion in equal measure. She is the only character who is given a backstory, that further adds to the impression that this whole film is taking place at least in part inside her head. Everything is beautifully shot and frames with Sono showing a mastery of his craft.

Circling the central subject of sex and pornography, the film presents a plethora of ideas. You can almost imagine that this is the result of a brainstorming exercise, and the film itself jumps from one idea to another. Some of the issues raised are the pressures put on women to fulfil two competing roles for men, that of the whore and the virgin, and how this relates to a woman’s idea of herself and her worth to society. We see the intersection of sex and violence, the emptiness at the heart of consuming pornography. Despite some difficult themes the film never feels like a morality tale. The film emphasizes the naturalness of sex and rails against the shame so often associated with it. It understands that intelligent debate on the subject, rather than moral panic, is the best way to tackle issues. I would highly recommend this film as an intelligent psycho-drama about sex, with a stunning central performance, excellent direction, and a story that forces you to consider any preconceptions you might have about sex, pornography and society.

Into a Dream (2005)

The film follows Suzuki, an actor who is struggling to find some purpose in his life, after he discovers he has contracted an STI. He is unsure who it is from, leading to a further deterioration in his relationship with his girlfriend. Suzuki sets off back to his hometown for a family reunion. Along the way, he is troubled by strange dreams, one in which he is part of a terrorist cell, another in which he is being interrogated, which start to become a part of his waking life. The lines between dreams and reality become blurred, as we hear repeated snatches of dialogue, the same actors recurring across all the dreams in different roles, and an increasingly confused Suzuki starting to lose his mind.

Written and directed by Sion Sono, this film features a lot of what makes the directors work interesting. There is a lot of comedy in the film, despite an apparently serious subject (that of sexually transmitted disease, alienation and depression). It is a straightforward story, that of an actor trying to find himself, told in an unconventional way. It is interesting to see the various dreams begin to intrude into his life, and ponder the significance of phrases that are repeated (such as the repeated reference to “venusians”). A great example of this peculiar storytelling is when Suzuki ends up in a basement with a maintenance man discussing a leaking pipe, a metaphor for Suzuki’s current ailment and need to be “fixed” or cured. The camerawork is all handheld, with many long takes adding to the dream-logic feel and making for an immersive experience. All the actors do a great job with multiple roles and the realistic, perhaps improvised, dialogue.

The central idea, an actor attempting to discover his true self, is not particularly original, but this film approaches it in a novel way, and lets us inside his head (including his dreams) to get a better sense of what he is experiencing. It is an examination of his interactions with others, with the contraction of an STI hammering this point home in a darkly comic way. We see his family, friends, lovers, both in real life, and his projections of them in his dreams. I would recommend this for fans of Sono, or films with a psychological element to them.