Sion Sono first came to the attention of western fans of Asian cinema back in 2002 off the back of the boom in J-Horror, when his provocatively gory “Suicide Club” took festival audiences by storm. But the director’s career stretches back a good twenty years -- encompassing avant-garde poetry readings and the writing of several novels, as well as a lengthy list of diverse film projects. Sono’s output under the mantle of filmmaker is indeed prodigious, starting with 8mm experimental films and even embracing the strange and unashamed penchant that many mainstream Japanese directors seem to have for knocking out the odd porn video on the side. In the last ten years Sono’s made thrillers, tender emotional melodramas and wild J-Horror films; he seems to be at his best when completely disregarding set notions of genre or structure, and his masterpiece is widely believed to be a four-hour (that’s the edited version -- the original cut was six hours long!) largely uncategorisable assault on the senses called “Love Exposure”, which some critics have compared to the work of Almodóvar at his friskiest.
And now this offbeat, unpredictable, day-glow-tinged psycho-thriller, “Guilty of Romance” (“Koi no tsumi”) becomes the third film in a loose series Sono has called his ‘Hate’ trilogy – “Love Exposure” being the first of the trio and “Cold Fish” the second. The three films aren’t obviously connected by aesthetic style, mood or subject matter, although each shares an abiding concern with the erotic soul of Japan and its various (to western audiences) peculiar manifestations across Japanese mainstream culture. “Love Exposure”, for instance, dealt much with the Japanese ‘art’ of clandestine upskirt photography.
“Guilty of Romance” meanwhile, is a sexually frank, very, very bleak, ultimately fairly chilling but frequently riotously colourful odyssey through the warren of Tokyo city’s respectably sleazy Love Hotel districts. It’s supposedly partly based on a macabre real-life incident which took place in 1990 and which the film uses to kick-start a mesmerising, intelligent, often blackly funny and hallucinogenic allegory, which deliberates on the Japanese porno industry, its contemporary mores and on female sexual identity as seen through the eyes of three modern Japanese women. Think “Black Swan” and the last few Lynch films (which it resembles not only in subject matter but also in appearance, as it was shot on high definition Digital Video and transferred to 35mm) with their off-centre female characters -- always hopelessly repressed and suffering the throes of acute crisis in identity, and then mix in the candy-coloured, psychedelic visual exuberance of Dario Argento’s “Inferno”, and you’re some of the way towards envisioning the bizarrely compelling genius of what is undoubtedly one of the film highlights of the year, now getting an essential UK DVD and Blu-ray release by Eureka Entertainment.
“Guilty of Romance” deals with some extreme subject matter and, unusually for Japanese cinema, features quite a lot of full-frontal nudity from its two main actresses. The original three-hour version received an R-18 rating in Japan – a rarity for the work of such a high profile director. The International cut (which is what has been released here) runs at just under two-hours and removes almost all the backstory of the third of the film’s three principle female leads, detective Kazuko Yoshida (Miki Mizuno). She becomes an almost mute bystander to the main drama, present only as part of what in this cut becomes more a framing device. The main body of the film uses her investigation of a bizarre murder, in which parts of a hacked-up female corpse are found joined with segments of two shop store mannequins and left in an derelict apartment frequented by prostitutes in Maruyama-cho, Shibuya – a Love Hotel district in Tokyo -- to plunge the viewer into expressionistic, high colour sex-drenched madness in which lead actress Megumi Kagurazaka goes from unassertive, mousy, cardigan-clad housewife to amped-up, extrovert and bewigged street-whore in a calamitously doomed attempt to find self-expression and her own identity -- an attempt that eventually goes disturbingly off the deep end into wordless insanity. The unexpected intensity of the film’s violence and its high sexual content, together with the director’s notion of using a true life crime as the basis for an existential allegory which then goes on to explore wider issues of contemporary Japanese society, calls to mind Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” -- and the films certainly share a sense of escalating insanity, both of them rooted in the depiction of a series of obsessive erotic encounters. The tone here is more overtly nightmarish and crazed though, and the characters become ever-more stylised and outlandish as the situations they become embroiled in intensify.
The opening scene, with the trouser-suited detective Kazuko turning up at the macabre murder scene amid sheeting rain and the gaudy neon glare bathing the streets that surround this prefecture’s labyrinthine Love Hotel district, couldn’t be more contemporary-noir in tone or style – an essay in the gritty ambience of David Fincher’s “Se7en” but with an overlay of fizzing colour emboldening the expressionistic lighting of cinematographer Sôhei Tanikawa. The gruesome discovery inside the paint smeared interior of one of the dimly lit apartments seems to position the film squarely in the horror bracket. A Subsequent autopsy scene in which the jumble of miscellaneous female remains is assembled, jigsaw style, on the police surgeon’s mortuary slab for the benefit of the Kazuko and her team, certainly isn’t for the faint hearted. But the police investigation then disappears from the movie almost entirely -- until the final act when we finally see, if you’ll pardon the pun, how the pieces really do fit together.
Instead, we enter the obsessively orderly world of Izumi Kikuchi (Megumi Kaguarazaka): a subservient, stay-at-home housewife to a self-regarding bestselling author of romantic fiction, who spends her days making sure that everything is ‘just so’ for her husband’s arrival home each evening: slippers must be in place at the door (symmetrically aligned with the edge of the carpet) and the correct brand of soap -- an imported French variety – must be in place in the bathroom. The relationship is emotionally sterile and remote, and the household (beige décor and a preponderance of antique clock knick-knacks to signal the regimented emptiness of Izumi’s life) quite colourless. The husband doesn’t actively mistreat his wife as such, but has forced her to supress all personality to such an extent that her only release comes with her diary writing, in which she promises herself she must ‘do something’ before she turns thirty. The only ‘something’ she can muster, as it turns out, is a rather unexciting job in a food store promoting the sale of sausages, a job for which her inherent meekness does not seem especially to mark her out for distinction in.
But one day Izumi is scouted by a grinning businesswoman apparently working for a respectable modelling agency, who, bit by bit, over the course of one extended session, coaxes the naïve ingénue into the world of risqué swimwear photo shoots, then peek-a-boo nude modelling and finally the full on-screen sexual escapades of the AV (Adult Video) industry. The modelling shoot is played like an outrageously bleak black comedy in which the true intentions of the apparently encouraging, supportively enthusiastic film crew – who exaggeratedly applaud Izumi for the removal of each new piece of clothing until the photographer’s stills camera is surreptitiously swapped for a camcorder when her male co-star suddenly gets down to the ‘real’ business of the day -- are always obvious to the viewer but completely elude their victim until she finds herself having sex on video for money, in what is assuredly a queasy, borderline assault. The film then segues into a mordant take on the standard porno narrative wherein the industry is portrayed (usually by itself) as the route to self-liberation and freedom: Izumi is emancipated by the newfound economic independence the AV industry affords her and empowered by the commodification of her sexuality; she suddenly becomes very good at her job in the food store as her personality starts to develop from the previously intimidated and subservient innocent of old -- too shy to raise her voice -- to an extroverted and bright, sassily dressed independent woman who now has the confidence to know she can charge strangers for sex. Izumi throws herself into making porno films with an enthusiasm and gusto that shocks even her employers, and finds self-worth and fulfilment in equating her self-prostitution with the selling of her store’s top brand of sausage, using much the same sales pitch for each activity. (“Would you like some, sir?”)
There is a slight satirical edge to this first act in Izumi’s tale, as a harsh dichotomy is set up between the new life of confidence she has sought outside the house and her former rather more cringing persona, which she still feels bound to re-adopt each evening as she welcomes her unsuspecting husband at the door (although it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep those slippers so perfectly aligned while pursuing prodigious acts of sex at the same time). But a further change comes with another fateful meeting which promotes a downward spiral into even darker areas of sexuality. Picked up by a curious bowler-hatted man in a white raincoat who takes her to a love hotel and forces her to speak to her husband on the phone in the middle of some rough, increasingly violent sex, Izumi thereafter becomes drawn to a female associate of his called Mitsuko Ozawa (Makoto Togashi), a respected University lecturer by day and a rapacious, lipstick-smeared street walker by night. Perhaps this sharing of a double life is what attracts her towards Mitsuko, who enraptures her with evocative dissertations on the poetry of Tamura Ryuichi during an impromptu attendance of one of her new mentor’s student lectures at Toto University. Soon, Mitsuko starts to woo Izumi with an unusual mix of deconstructionist semiotics, literary existentialism (in which she compares the clients who roam the winding streets of the Love Hotel district to the central character in Franz Kafka’s novel ‘The Castle’) and dirty sex with her students in the university toilets (which Izumi is invited to watch!). ‘Let me show you what I become at night,’ say’s the alluring minx – and Izumi, like a rabbit caught in headlights, finds herself initiated into Mitsuko’s steamy, surreal night time exploits in the woozy world of prostitution, and pretty soon is forced into taking part in them. Izumi emerges from this odyssey into the seamier side of Japan’s sex culture having now adopted Mitsuko’s hardened business-orientated approach to desire: control and freedom comes, according to the university lecturer, in putting a price on sex. From this moment on Izumi responds to almost any kind of male interest with an immediate, curt but polite offer of casual sex, that is if the price willing to be paid for it is right.
As Sono steers the film on a rocky course that nudges it between the darkest corners of deadpan comedy and a disturbing, surreal, multi-coloured whirlpool of madness and horror, its distinctive visual aesthetic becomes more pronounced. The digital video origins of the camerawork are always apparent but the extra detail rendered by the HD transfer is deliberately offset by a gauzy quality to the image which I believe is intended. It certainly lends the movie a hazy dreamlike aspect that doesn’t in any way diminish the intensity or the giddy whirl of neon pinks, purples and blues, the phosphorescent greens and the blazing oranges and yellows which light the increasingly deranged goings-on during the nights depicted in Shibuya. It’s hard to keep the name Argento out of any description of the appearance of the movie during these lengthy segments, although unlike “Inferno”, which it most resembles (the trailer announces the film as depicting ‘love’s inferno’ so perhaps someone else picked up on the visual connection also), the source of all this colour is never completely irrational, but rather indicative of the weird aura the increasingly witch-like Mitsuko and her cohort the bowler-hatted man exude, mixing sleaze with a cartoony child-like comic-strip enthusiasm. Sono adds to this candy colour aesthetic with what seems to be a visual pun on Japanese ‘pink’ erotic films, by having the bowler-hatted man hurling bubblegum pink paint bombs about during many of the film’s loud, violent sex acts. Much of this material seems to have been filmed using hand-held cameras, but during the daytime sequences a more formally composed style is employed, emphasising Izumi’s rationally ordered, blandly decorated world during her time at home. With her involvement in the business of modelling and subsequently the porn industry, the slick visuals start to take on the sheen of a western soap commercial -- echoing the aesthetics often used to promote Japanese gravure idols.
While always visually compelling and distinctive, “Guilty of Romance” seems just as preoccupied with literature and the world of words as it is with images, although ultimate meaning often feels as elusive as it is for the characters in Kafka’s novel ‘The Castle’, which provides the central metaphor repeatedly alluded to from the opening moments of the film when the murder victim is first discovered in an apartment with the world CASTLE scrawled in paint on one of its walls. Aside from the film itself being split into ‘chapters’ one of the most important sequences relating to literary themes comes when Mitsuko tries to expand on the Tamura Ryuichi poem she teaches her students, explaining to Izumi how words are traps to be overcome by ‘making them flesh’, and how she yearns for ‘a world without words’ (the title of one of Ryuichi’s books, published in 1962). Although sex is frequently equated with violence during the film, the pessimistic tone doesn’t feel particularly misogynistic as such; rather the female characters are portrayed as though caught in an inescapable predicament, trying to negotiate identity in a world rigidly determined by a language that is seemingly moulded by patriarchy, and finding madness in the process.
The early scenes in which we see Izumi gazing adoringly at her husband from the audience during one of his interminable book readings (which sound like overheated Barbara Cartland) are mirrored later on when she becomes equally transfixed by Mitsuko’s poetry reading at the university. In her day job, Mitsuko radiates a curiously male persona (she wears a mannish beige trouser suit, which makes her look similar to Izumi’s husband) and we later learn from her rather shrewish, perpetually grinning little mother that her double life is largely a response to some rather grim issues surrounding an unhealthy relationship with her father during childhood and adolescence. The man in the bowler hat turns out to be a ‘pimp’ partner in an sleazy escort agency called The Enchantress Club, and once Izumi becomes one of his clients she’s on the home straight in what turns out to have been a gradual unravelling of identity rather than the leap towards the liberating independence she thought she was getting from her new life. Mitsuko’’s involvement and complicity in the running of the Enchantress Club also turns out to provide only an illusion of an escape from a sexual identity that is ultimately defined by the oppressors she likes to think she is thwarting through sex-based commerce.
There is no happy ending to be found here then, but merely a gradual yielding to a voiceless, perhaps mindless state from the vantage point of which Izumi only becomes more vulnerable to male aggression, this time of a much more direct and brutal kind. Much of the movie is scored with a series of sedate classical chamber pieces (apparently a Sono trademark), which adds even more of a wistful, fatalistic tone to the pessimistic proceedings. It’s most definitely not a film for everybody -- playing more in the vein of arthouse thrillers such as “Mulholland Drive”, “Eyes Wide Shut” or this year’s “Black Swan” – but to me this is one of the surprise finds of the year and one of the most intriguing and original thrillers to come out of Asian cinema in some years.
The Blu-ray edition from Eureka Entertainment features a commentary from film critic and curator Jasper Sharp which turns out to be an excellent primer on the life, films and career of Sion Sono and the ins and outs of the Nikkatsu Film Corporation responsible for financing this movie, but the film itself is only fleetingly alluded to. There’s also an excellent interview with lead actress Megumi Kagurazaka who talks in some detail about the methods of the director, her preparation for the demanding role (both she and Togashi are really put through the ringer in this film) and the specialised world of gravure modelling in general. This runs for thirty-eight minutes. Also included is a theatrical trailer.
“Guilty of Romance” is one of the films of the year and Eureka have given us a very fine high definition transfer, here, for the movie’s Blu-ray debut. Highly recommended.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog Nothing But The Night!