So we're back to the Japan Society screening room. It's summer 2007, somewhere during the NYAFF, and I just witnessed Sion Sono's Q&A w/ the audience after viewing エクステ/Exte. I knew, in order to fully "get" this director, whose deft and effective tongue-in-cheek slam to the J-Horror genre truly captivated, I'd need to seek out every available Sono-directed film. Unfortunately, his earlier, experimental works around his guerilla poetry days are, thus far, nigh-impossible to find stateside. I knew I wouldn't have that trouble w/ his (in)famous 自殺サークル/Suicide Club, but I couldn't Ignore 奇妙なサーカス/Strange Circus, either. This film bears a garish reputation that precedes it in a similar vein to Suicide Club. It's quite violent but moreover highly erotic, and the plot trundles from a shocking series of scenes to this surreal, fractured reality like an Autechre tune halfway through. It is a disturbing, immersive experience. I've seen Strange Circus three times.
I begin w/ the broader points: Sono leads in on a disconcerting note, a soft-focus night circus, straight out of David Lynch's Blue Velvet. If you're afraid of clowns or creaking ferris wheels, then it's going to be rough going. A bejewelled drag queen works up the audience, asks for a volunteer for the guillotine, and gets the cute-as-a-button Mitsuko (played here by Rie Kuwana), who seems resigned to getting her head cut off. She has a voiceover here about "being born at the execution stand" and "the various traps around her house", which are repeated multiple times in the film, appropriately like reading from a script, and we fade to her home. Their house is this creepy, sparkling-clean Victorian-ish mansion, which I don't know WHERE in Tokyo (unless this isn't Tokyo) one would find a place this huge (Roppongi Hills, maybe?) — it's seemingly totally disconnected from reality, always flooded w/ sunlight except in the times where the walls are bathed w/ a slick, blood-red tarp like the inside of a human heart. She accidentally walks in on her parents having sex, which opens a Pandora's Box of deviance. The sex-crazed dad locks Mitsuko in a cello case equipped w/ a peephole, forcing her to watch his rough coitus w/ her mom, then taunting her as a naughty child for watching. Eventually Mom figures out he's been sleeping with their daughter, which seems to piss her off more than disgust her, and she repeatedly beats the girl. They have it out on the top of the stairs and Mom loses her footing, falls, dies. Dad reminds Mitsuko that they're in this together now, continues to rape her, and she attempts suicide by leaping off a bridge into the river. She lives, paralyzed from the waist down (Dad reminds her to keep their "relationship" a secret), and Mai Takahashi takes over as the teen MItsuko, beautiful but insolent, wheeling about their mansion that is now like the set of a porn film, Dad always berobed, banging various PYTs while ignoring his paraplegic daughter. In a fit of rage, she takes a kitchen knife and begins stabbing her own immobile legs (here Yoshihiro Nishimura steps in for the viscous SFX) — another suicide attempt thwarted and suddenly...
...we meet "paraplegic" author Taeko (Masumi MIyazaki), her lewd editor Tomorowo Taguchi (despite the moustache, the nervy character from Tetsuo is totally present) and his assistant Yuji (Issei Ishida), who is somehow inexplicably drawn to Taeko, but (it's repeated many times) not in a sexual way. So supposedly everything in the previous paragraph comes from Taeko's mind, it's a story she's writing, but she keeps blurring the line b/w that world and her own, while changing elements of the story throughout the film. This time Mitsuko falls down the stairs and dies and Mom attempts to become her, posing as her daughter at school, trying to commit suicide later. Then we learn Taeko doesn't really need the wheelchair and that the somewhat androgynous Yuji, who becomes increasingly dramatic throughout the 2nd 1/2 of the film, claims to be related to her. And is Taeko supposed to be the Mom? Is Yuji Mitsuko? Is any of this real? What the hell is Sono-san doing?
I navigate this best as a series of hyperboles: there is the core narrative (girl in a spiraling, destructive relationship w/ her father, and she may or may not have accidentally contributed to her mother's death), then there are the egregious points. Once he rapes Mitsuko, Dad is shown ALWAYS having sex, limitlessly potent and controlling. The luxurious, ornate house is echoed in Taeko's baroque "studio". The circus itself is the subconscious — whose that is is left for us to decide, but in the end, it's Taeko at the guillotine, Mitsuko and Yuji waving in the audience, and the Dad as executioner.
And we're back to Exte. Newbie Sono-watchers should NOT see Strange Circus as their first film. It epitomizes the notion of a "difficult" film, IMO the most challenging in Sono's oeuvre (that I've seen, anyway), and that's 1/2 due to the mutable story-w/in-a-story plot and 1/2 due to the bone-chilling subject matter. I even wonder if Suicide Club is the proper initiate for a newbie Sono fan, though it certainly makes sense as it's his best-known, at least stateside. But Exte was my first, and it could be YOUR first too, and to no harm at all. It contains many of Sono's recurring elements (the family, a sense of place and surroundings, oblique violence) while handedly turning a popular commercial genre, J-Horror, on its ear. And it's no pushover, either: the shock and gore are at a premium here, and Exte has its "jump" moments, but Sono paces the body horror w/ darkly humorous episodes enclosed around a disarmingly emotive family drama. Rather than a simplistic farce, Exte is an extremely masterful work of art. It begins purposefully cliché, w/ security (led by the inexhaustible Yuji Takana) checking out a suspicious shipping crate filled w/ hair extensions on the docks of an unIDed Japanese city. One of the guards remarks here about the trendiness of said "エクステ" (echoing back to Suicide Club, where a somewhat oblivious cop remarks on the trendiness of one-point tattoos amid Tokyo's youth), the corpse of a girl hidden w/in the hair falls into view, and we have the makings of a garden-variety J-Horror film.
Sono-san immediately reminds us this is not the case at all: 1) we meet morgue worker Yamazaki (legendary actor Ren Osugi, in perhaps his most over-the-top role, which he should have received loads of accolades), who sports an incredibly leery predilection for women's hair (specifically the corpse's) and 2) we meet Yuko (an effortless Chiaki Kuriyama), expounding her love for this seaside town whilst pedaling her bike to the beauty salon where she works. We learn some back-story on the corpse, a victim of black market organ-trade, who in Yamazaki's presence sprouts seemingly unlimited hair, from her head and every orifice. The hair-otaku, meanwhile, peddles these cursed locks as extensions to the beauty salon, where Yuko's coworkers pick them up and eventually die, violently, from the cursed hair (think the yurei, long-haired Japanese witch, but hair only). This in itself, the psycho w/ the killer hair extensions, is enough for a goofy J-Horror flick. But Sono takes it further by introducing Yuko's elder sister Kiyomi (none other than Tsugumi from Noriko's Dinner Table, in heart-of-darkness mode) and Kiyomi's adorable, abused daughter Mami. Kiyomi is a poisonous character, swatting at her little girl whilst cutting Yuko to the quick, noting that little sister has no right to castigate her parenting as Yuko had an abortion. This is Sono's message-w/in-the-horror, his family drama that complicates the ostensibly "common" J-Horror film.
Two of Sono-san's latest films screened during last year's NYAFF/Japan Cuts, which is unusual for the generally restrainedly creative director and b/c one of the two films had a 4-hour runtime. The briefer film, ちゃんと伝える/Be Sure to Share, I regrettably missed due to a scheduling conflict, but to my understanding it was Sono at his family-drama best: Dad (iconic actor Eiji Okuda) is dying of cancer and it turns out his son (Akira), who's shared a tepid relationship, has it as well. The other film, the 4-hour one, was Sono's bildungsfilm 愛のむきだし/Love Exposure. And there was NO WAY I was going to miss it. I hesitate to title Love Exposure Sono's magnum opus, as he's got many decades of filmmaking ahead of him unless he becomes so jaded he quits the biz. But Love Exposure is very close to that: nothing is wasted in the 4-hour runtime (trust me on that) and it is imbued w/ Sono elements (the family, religion and cultism, sexuality and deviance, violence — and while this is not a violent film, the brief scenes of arterial spray are all the more shocking). It is an absolutely fantastic banquet for the eyes and the soul.
In brief: Yu (Takahiro Nishijima, member of coed J-Pop band AAA, search me on that except they've been quite prolific) is raised by his super-strict Catholic priest of a father Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe) after Yu's mother passes away. Note: religion, Christianity and otherwise, is a different deal in Japan, hence why Dad was once married and has a son. Tetsu becomes more zealous following his wife's death and forces Yu to visit the confessional booth daily to confess his sins. Yu's not a decidedly bad kid, at least not "sinful" enough for his dad, so he takes it upon himself, like a very strange challenge, to sin to his utmost ability. And for him that means becoming the ninja master of upskirt photography. He's not doing it to get off, merely to appease Tetsu. Anyway, he meets a sailor-uniformed girl, Yoko (brilliantly played by Hikari Mitsushima, who Western audiences may recall as the li'l sis from Death Note), having a run-in w/ thugs. She handedly beats some of them up and Yu comes to her aid to finish the others off, whilst madly falling in love w/ her. The slo-mo shots of her roundhouse-kicking the baddies, replete w/ convenient glimpses of her stomach and panties, have Yu all shook up. Only: he's dressed in drag (for losing a bet) so when the dust settles Yoko thinks she's got a girl for an ally and kind of likes that. Enter Aya (Sakura Ando), member of the "Zero Church" cult, one of Yu's upskirt victims. She can't get over why he's not aroused by his perverted past-time, so she gets at him by stealing Yoko away. So now Yu is pining for Yoko, Aya tricks Yoko into pining for her, and Aya attempts to convert Tetsu and his new love-interest Kaori (who happens to be Yoko's mom) to the "Zero Church".
We the audience were told ahead of time that we wouldn't see the film's title until a cool hour in, just as a watermark to how quickly the plot progressed. I thought, "yeah right", but I was quickly swept up in the action, in the backstory on Yu's mom (a devout, loving Catholic mother, promising her son he'd meet his "Mary" one day — that, according to Yu, would be Yoko). We see his uncomfortable episodes w/ his father, who chastises him for now being forthright w/ his sinning. We see Yu studying the fundamentals of upskirt photography. Then the film's theme song, Maurice Ravel's unforgettable Boléro, begins to pulse through, its wind instruments trading off that iconic solo (flute, clarinet, bassoon etc) whilst the strings swell beneath. The song continues hypnotically over its ostinato rhythm, then we see Yoko in the park tangling w/ the thugs, Yu in drag standing there dumbfounded. The title flashes over with a cannonlike boom: Love Exposure. We applauded fervently. One hour in, and it felt like 15 minutes.
The remainder of the film, Yu's growingly complicated relationship w/ Yoko, after she moves in w/ her mom and immediately distrusts him, going for Aya instead, who continues stalking Yu. The family slides into the cult, Yu tries to profess his feelings for Yoko and she calls him, through gritted teeth, the word he's become "hentai" (pervert). He's created this new world for himself, the twisted upskirt photography profession that lures in a poisonous admirer (Aya) whilst pushing away his true love (Yoko), and his drag-clad alter ego Aya caches in on to keep Yoko from him. Love Exposure was apparently six hours long and Sono begrudgingly trimmed it to four. I can only hope the American DVD release (fingers crossed) contains some of those cut scenes, b/c the 4-hour runtime does NOT feel gratuitous, nor self-absorbed. It's decidedly noncommercial yet should not be treated as solely some art-house artifact. The time literally flies by and the weight one feels upon the film's conclusion, Yu's eventual breakdown and teary-eyed reunion w/ Yoko, is less from the duration and more from the heavily emotive, sensitive story. One doesn't simply view Love Exposure: they experience it.