Japanese auteur Sono Sion is currently making some of the most consistently vital, original and unmissable films of this last decade. His deeply idiosyncratic work often seems like a personal extension of his experimental avant-garde poetry (in Japan, Sion is equally well known as a poet and novelist) while frequently being lengthy (“Love Exposure” was over four hours long!), chaotically structured but dense in subtext and beautiful to look at; films such as the perverse psychological thriller “Guilty of Romance” undoubtedly wield an emotional clout that goes far beyond that of more easily digestible fare inhabiting the same genre, a quality which helps make it, and other works in the director’s filmography, linger longer in the mind than most. The Sion style has developed to be consistently unpredictable: you literally have no idea where any one film of his is going to go next, as characters in the surreal, sprawling Sono Sion universe seem driven by extreme responses which overwhelm them in relation to their environments, and sometimes result in behaviour that is acutely stylised, non-naturalistic, almost cartoonish in manner, but which is nevertheless, usually guided by raw emotion -- starkly portrayed on the screen in the form of Sion’s trademark offbeat-but-striking vignettes of bizzaro melodrama.
Since his 2001 J-horror film “The Suicide Club” brought him to the attention of western audiences for the first time, uniquely Japanese social issues (particularly those affecting young women in the workplace or based around the pressures now placed on Japanese youth to succeed in an increasingly competitive society) have become noticeably prominent in the subject matter motivating his work; this is nowhere more apparent than in Sion’s latest film “Himizu”, which was scripted by the director originally as a straight adaptation of a Manga by Minoru Furuya, but then completely re-written to acknowledge the devastating earthquake and tsunami which struck the Tōhoku region of Japan on March 11th 2011 just before shooting started, and which resulted in the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant. A story of disaffection and hardship, of youth traduced and robbed of its heritage, now takes on an even wider relevance, as Sion becomes the first Japanese filmmaker to attempt to grapple with the ripped-up soul of Japan itself as the country struggles in the aftermath to rebuild itself amid the fallout and overwhelming wreckage of circumstance. It’s one of the director’s most striking films yet – more lyrically elegiac in tone than is usual for Sion but already well on its way, like “Guilty of Romance” before it, to feverish cult masterpiece status. The two hours and ten minute running time of the release version has been pared down from an original cut of three-and-a-half hours, and Sion’s sometimes brutal depiction of violence has also been toned down here in comparison to, say, “Cold Fish”: but still there are few recent films from any nation that have managed to make such a strident first impression as this one. “Himizu” is the kind of film you know you need to see again immediately -- even before the end credits have finished rolling!
The title “Himizu” is the Japanese word for ‘mole’, and succinctly describes how depressive fourteen year-old Yuichi Sumida (Shota Shometani) sees himself as he seeks to escape the tediously upbeat schoolroom propaganda being inculcated to his friends in the wake of the recent earthquake disaster, by aspiring merely to a self-abnegating nothingness -- rejecting his teacher’s ‘think positive’ philosophies and wanting nothing more than to live an invisible underground life, disconnected from the living trauma that’s in clear view all around him. This desire is made rather more difficult for the blank-eyed, increasingly morose youngster, though, particularly because of unwanted and frankly deranged adulation coming from his relentlessly perky schoolmate Keiko Chazawa (Fumi Nikaidou), a self-confessed female ‘stalker’ who hangs on his every word and plasters her bedroom walls in carefully transcribed written reproductions of his overheard conversations. Sumida drops out of school and plans to continue quietly running the family lakeside boating business in the company of a rag-tag community of older people recently made homeless by the tsunami disaster, and who have since been allowed to live a meagre, nomadic existence on the unkempt Sumida property in a gaggle of old tarp tents. Fending off the eager attentions of Keiko proves the least of Yuichi’s problems, though: his absent dad (Ken Mitsuishi) occasionally returns home drunk to viciously beat his son and remind the boy that he wishes he’d never been born in the first place; and his mother (Makiko Watanabe) works from home as a middle-aged prostitute – that is until she ups and leaves altogether to go live with a stall-owning client, abandoning Yuichi to fend for himself -- which means having to deal with gleefully violent Yakuza moneylenders who turn up looking for his father, but who are quite content to dole out their beatings to his offspring and his self-appointed surrogate father Yoruno (Tetsu Watanabe) instead.
Despite the appearance of an oddball family community of the disenfranchised and the strange, which builds itself around him in spite of his protestations (all of them recognisable faces from recent entries in Sono Sion’s filmography), Yuichi becomes increasingly mentally tortured and deranged by the madness of his uncertain and unstable world, until one desperate act of grim, rain-sodden and mud-caked violence sends him off the edge completely – at which point, he fashions himself into perhaps the most surreally unattractive ‘superhero’ vigilante avenger ever conceived for the screen, smearing himself from head-to-toe in oil paints and shuffling through the unforgiving neon streets of the surrounding prefecture in a tatty, smeared t-shirt whilst looking like an insane vagabond, carrying only an incongruously crisp white paper carrier bag containing one large, impossibly sharp and gleaming stainless steel kitchen knife -- with which he intends to kill all the ‘evil people’ in the world!
As is the norm for a Sono Sion film by now, a synopsis such as this barely scrapes the surface in conveying the edgy, unpredictable waywardness of the movie or the sprawling tangential nature of what is an often surreal narrative that makes such supreme use of its rich and all-over-the-place palette of varying performance styles, visual codes and tonal juxtapositions that it should surely by rights have ended up as one hopeless heap of a mess. Yet Sion’s genius lies in his ability to craft often semi-improvised quirks and set-pieces through an editing process that allows each to meld into something which becomes more affecting as they somehow becomes more than the sum of the film’s stylistically disparate parts. How the process works is anyone’s guess, but the director certainly seems to have the knack for it. Judging by the half hour of deleted scenes included with this disc -- all of them extremely significant additions to what survives in the release print (suggesting Sion works through a process of shooting anything and everything that comes to mind, then fashions his ‘true’ vision in the editing suite afterwards) -- the filmmaking process seems to be something almost freeform and subject to sudden flights of mad fancy on the part of this maverick director; certainly many of his actors and crew insist that they’ve never encountered a working environment quite like it on any other movie they’ve been on.
The film’s opening minutes establish a discordant, dreamlike poetic sensibility (although don’t imagine for a moment that the use of a phrase like ‘dreamlike’ means placid or floaty in this context!) – consummately introducing the viewer to the damaged internal landscape of the two main protagonists through tightly edited, fragmentary visions of gloomy apocalypse: Sumida wanders aimlessly through a wreckage-strewn landscape of devastation that stretches across the horizon as far as the eye can see, bizarrely stumbling upon the family tumble drier, inside which is a pistol which he then grinningly places to his own temple; Keiko recites a poem by modernist Japanese poet Takuboku Ishikawa in the torrentially pouring rain (it becomes a miracle that neither lead caught pneumonia by the end of this rain-dominated shoot!). Director of photography Sohei Tamazaki’s cameras catch authentic footage of the devastation wrought by the earthquake and the tsunami, but Sion uses it throughout as a backdrop to more dreamlike visions and epiphanies of despair which are endured by all the main characters, conveying the bleak terrain of their imaginations in the wake of the disaster by way of an constantly inventive sound design that’s equally as experimental as the director’s lurid mixing of visual poetics (which jump between off-the-cuff, hand-held digicam and super-fast editing the one moment, and drifting, stately, God’s-eye-view Mizoguchi-syle crane shots the next): every major emotional event in the movie is soundtracked by the same ominous base rumble of an earthquake with distracting, Geiger-counter-crackling obliquely reminding us of the ubiquitous background of radiation poisoning -- a mood first established during those surrealist opening sequences and given a moving slant with the movie’s sombre classical score (which includes that now-ubiquitous evoker of tragedy and pathos Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings). Tamazaki’s limpid cinematography switches from realistic depictions of Sumida’s home and school environments to attractive pastel, neon bright multi-coloured interiors of apartments and exterior street scenes, recalling the beguiling candy shop aesthetics of his work on Sion’s previous film, “Guilty of Romance”, and creating an entrancing atmosphere that perfectly complements the half-crazed exuberance of cast members such as Denden (who plays shaven-headed, medallion-wearing yakuza boss Kaneko -- one of several stand-in father figures for Sumida during the course of the movie) and Tetsu Watanabe as the elderly Shozo Yoruno – a character who is at once both child-like and avuncular and who carries almost as much of the narrative during the middle part of the film as Sumida, when he attempts to make better the teenager’s suffering by sacrificing his own honour in order to pay off Sumida’s father’s yakuza debts by involving himself with an opportunistic street pickpocket
Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaidou give astonishingly intense performances at the poetic centre of the film, and are required to combine both naturalistic and non-naturalistic elements to their characterisations of Yuichi Sumida and Keiko Chazawa respectively, in a manner that would have been a challenge to far more experienced performers, let alone ones so young and comparatively inexperienced. They each fully deserve their Marcello Mastroianni Awards for best new actor and actress given to them at the 68th Venice Film Festival. The accompanying ‘Making Of’ documentary on this Blu-ray shows the 21 day shoot to have been something of a rite of passage for the two young actors, particularly Nikaidou who struggled to realise her character’s utterly odd combination of zany cartoon cheerfulness, romantic devotion in the face of her beau’s insanity and quiet acceptance of her parents’ frankly expressed loathing for her. The relationship between Keiko and her parents (Megumi Kagurazaka and Mitsuru Fukikoshi) provides perhaps the film’s most evocative allegory for the societal breakdown in trust between older Japanese culture and its disenfranchised modern youth: they both pointedly ignore their child, who confines herself to a fantasy world of dreaming about Sumida in her bedroom (even though most of their physical contact consists in him slapping and punching her) while her parents devote their own energies to constructing an elegant, fairy-light decorated, red-painted gallows in the spare bedroom, a lethally artistic encouragement for Keiko to hurry up and kill herself as quickly as possible, since her parents see her merely as a hindrance who has spoiled their own chances of happiness by her continued unwanted presence in their home! Sometani gives an equally mesmerising performance as the increasingly strange Sumida -- his narcoleptic apathy gradually poisoned by encroaching insanity with each cruelly suffered set-back, until he’s transformed into alternatingly a screaming loon or a shuffling zombie. Sumida is meant to be symbolic of Japan’s troubled youth and a product of past generations of selfishness; when he embarks on his crazed vigilante mission he finds the streets practically swarming with other youths with the same idea -- their angry knifing sprees merely resulting in more random bloodshed (a sullen youth knifes a woman on the tube for asking him to vacate his seat for a pregnant passenger; a knife-carrying nutter runs amok in a city square) and more fevered hopelessness. The film becomes about his existential struggle to find his way back from madness to some kind of workable way of living in a country both psychologically and quite literally in pieces after an unthinkable catastrophe; there are no firm conclusions drawn but Sion suggests a kind of hope may still be possible amid the rubble, if only a wistful, compromised kind.
This Blu-ray edition from Third Window Films features a beautifully crisp HD transfer and an excellent audio soundscape, as well as a host of extras which are dominated by an extensive 72 minute Making Of documentary which is very revealing in its depiction of Sion’s working methods and the challenges they sometimes pose for his crew and actors. As well as re-writing the script of “Himizu” just before the shoot in order to reference the earthquake, the ambiguous but poetically moving conclusion of the movie also turns out to have only been decided upon and written on the morning it was actually shot -- departing significantly from the ending of the original Manga comic. There are also half-an-hours’ worth of deleted scenes included here, nearly all of which add a lot more content and characterisation than we see in the finished release print, as well as an mad, over-the-top Manga-style punch up between Sumida’s tent-dwelling elderly friends and a gang of delinquent yobs Sumida encounters abusing a waitress in a café earlier in the film (although almost all of this sequence is itself confined to deleted scene status as well). There’s a 20 minute interview with actor DenDen, now a Sono Sion regular, in which the actor talks about how he fleshed out his character with his own backstory to explain his attitude towards Sumida, and gives his own summery of how Sion’s working methods differ from most other directors. There’s a theatrical trailer and a comprehensive trailer gallery for other current and upcoming Third Window Films releases, including the Blu-ray debut of “Love Exposure” and “Cold Fish”.
“Himizu” further cements Sono Sion’s status as one of the most important directors working in cinema today and is an avant-garde treasure full of sprawling madness and dark dreamlike lyricism. Available in both 2-disc DVD and Blu-ray versions, this work comes highly recommended.