Ever since I wrote the article The Controversial Films of Gapar Noe’, my favourite filmmaker working today, I wanted to do the same thing with another auteur who’s very dear to me: the controversial Japanese artist known as Sion Sono. And what better fit than the EXTREME HORROR series to talk about one of the most polarising filmmakers of our time?
Actually, Sion Sono started out as a poet. In fact, his first short movie (I Am Sion Sono!, 1985) is just footage of him reciting his poetry in different locations and situations. Sion Sono, has come a long way, though: he’s now regarded as one of the finest artists working in cinema, although there are both critics and regular viewers who judge harshly his movies based on the extreme content they’re filled with.
What I love most about this filmmaker is his versatility. In this article, I will review four of his most extreme and controversial horror films, but Sion Sono wrote and directed 38 feature-length pictures, some of which are – unfortunately – nearly impossible to find in the Western part of the world. For example (and I strongly recommend all the movies I’m going to mention now), he made two insane but accessible horror flicks like Hair Extensions (2007) and Tag (2015), very fast-paced and gory. He made Tokyo Tribe (2014), an action-musical about yakuza members fighting each other, set in an alternate Tokyo, which shows a perfect blend of comedy, martial arts and over-the-top violence. He made Antiporno (2016), a modern art-house Roman-porno movie that is one of the most surreal viewing experiences you can ever witness. He made Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013), an action-comedy about a film crew embroiled with a yakuza feud: an insane picture that shows marvellous camera-work and some of the most entertaining action sequences I’ve ever seen. He made one of my all-time favourite movies, Love Exposure (2008): a nearly-four-hour-long romantic film which is one of the most epic movies ever, filled with jaw-dropping visual symbolism, my favourite score of all time, different styles of filmmaking (the movie is shot on film, digital and digital-video at the same time!), emotional sequences and unique storytelling and cinematography.
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I know, we are here to speak about extreme horror. So, let’s do it: this article will feature four of the most infamous films by Sion Sono, which I’m going to take a look at chronologically.
Continue reading and discover the four extreme horror movies by Sion Sono:
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Suicide Club (2001) – This is the movie that put Sion Sono on the map, the movie that made him famous abroad. For good reasons. Suicide Club is about a group of 54 school girls committing suicide simultaneously on a subway station, and a detective (played by the awesome Ryo Ishibashi, Audition) who tries to understand what led to this. As he tries to uncover the truth, more and more groups of teenagers commit suicide in similar ways across Japan. Even though it features one of the goriest and most gruesome opening scenes I’ve ever witnessed, Suicide Club isn’t as extreme as many people make it out to be.
If anything, this fantastic film is extreme…ly sad and depressing, due to its powerful social commentary about isolation in Japanese society and the consequent need for acceptance. Throughout most of the relatively short runtime (only, 100 minutes, which is the blink of an eye for Sono’s standards), Suicide Club features only a few gruesome sequences, which mostly revolve around suicide cases. However, the last 20 minutes are quite disturbing and hard to watch, both psychologically and visually speaking.
By no means a mainstream film, I’d still recommend Suicide Club to everyone: it’s a marvellous piece of horror-drama, filled with inventive camera-work, fantastic performances, terribly depressing topics, heart-wrenching score and a good dose of scares and violence. However, I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece as many others do: due to its low-budget, the movie looks dated now, and sometimes sound-design and lighting feel a bit off. Also, for once I would’ve loved this picture to be 30/45 minutes longer to develop some aspects of Japanese society that are only briefly touched upon.
Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005) – Obsessed with everything related to Suicide Club, Sion Sono wrote and directed a sequel to that movie: Noriko’s Dinner Table. This is a very difficult picture to sell: it’s almost three hours long, it’s very slow-paced and dialogue-driven, it’s (unfortunately) not as graphic as Suicide Club. Noriko’s Dinner Table delves more into the social issues presented by Suicide Club, by telling the story of a broken family where the youngest daughter feels out of place, wants to change identity and therefore joins people who might be part of the Suicide Club.
As I just said, Noriko’s Dinner Table isn’t a very gruesome film. In fact, only the last 30 minutes of the movie are gory and violent. However, it is just as depressing and hard to watch as its predecessor. Again, great performances, beautifully presented messages and great execution make this film a must-see for fans of Sion Sono.
Although Noriko’s Dinner Table isn’t as memorable as Suicide Club, on a technical level is a much better film. In fact, it’s nearly flawless, showing how much Sion Sono strives to improve and change his style from one movie to the next. If you don’t mind long, dialogue-driven movies, I would absolutely advise you to watch this one, as long as you don’t expect a “real” extreme horror film.
Strange Circus (2005) – If you are looking for extreme content, you can’t go wrong with Strange Circus, a film I absolutely adore despite the controversy surrounding it. The movie follows a family destroyed by incest, murder and abuse, all the while a second storyline is focused on the titular strange circus. Are these two somewhat connected? If so, how?
This film is remarkable, among a million other aspects, for the contrast between dreamlike sequences revolving around the circus and raw reality of paedophilia and sexual abuse in the family we follow. That’s where the controversy comes from: Strange Circus features quite a few scenes where acts of hard sexual abuse and violence toward a clearly underage girl are displayed fully on screen. This obviously caused Sion Sono to be accused of being a paedophile and a pervert, but everything comes down to great editing and camera-work. The girl wasn’t actually abused in real-life: Sion Sono just used his masterful skills to craft scenes that look as realistic as life itself. As a consequence, though, this truly is one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen.
As weird as it may sound, Strange Circus is also a genuinely beautiful and touching movie. This is why I love it so much: it takes a hideous subject that makes me (and most people) very uncomfortable and turns it into a visually stunning, emotionally charged, deeply meaningful picture that combines elements of extreme horror and dark, depressing drama. Once again, this isn’t a movie I would recommend due to its insanely disturbing content and imagery, but I truly love it and, hopefully, I have convinced a few of you to check it out.
Cold Fish (2010) – Speaking of Sion Sono movies I love, Cold Fish is definitely one of them. When Syamoto’s teenage daughter is caught stealing, a generous middle-aged man helps resolve the situation. The man and his wife offer to have Syamoto’s troublesome daughter work at their fish store, to which he agrees. However, Syamoto (played by the great Mitsuru Fukikoshi) soon discovers the horrific truth of the seemingly perfect couple.
Unlike the other films featured in this article, Cold Fish has a more traditional structure made of a slow build-up where you get to know the characters, a second act where things get progressively more violent and disturbing, and an ending filled with gore, brutal scenes and insane character twists. Just like any other film by Sono, Cold Fish delves into the darkest depths of the human psyche, presenting interesting characters that deal with uncomfortable situations. For fans of extreme horror, this is quite an easy one to recommend: it’s very graphic and has got many gory sequences, it features uncomfortable content such as abuse and rape, but it never gets to a point where it feels gratuitous or unwarranted.
My undying love for this picture comes from a combination of factors, although I must say this is probably the least visually appealing film out of these four: the movie is perfectly directed and scored, but cinematography and camera-work don’t have that Sion Sono’s unique touch. Still, please don’t miss this one out!
I hope this overview made you curious about this infamous but masterful filmmaker. I must admit this was the article in the EXTREME HORROR series I had the most fun writing, simply because it gave me a reason to revisit four films I really love. In fact, each of them is an 8/10 or higher in my book.
I adore Sion Sono… and his next movie, his first American movie (starring Nic Cage and Imogen Poots), will come out soon! If you are familiar with him, though, what do you think of these four movies? Which one is your favourite?
If what you read sounds too extreme for you, though, please watch at least some of the other movies by Sion Sono: Tag, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and Tokyo Tribe are definitely a good starting point!
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