(Note: Video contains graphic content.)
Indie auteur Sion Sono’s sprawling career and equally sprawling films receive critical acclaim but can be polarizing. 2013’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (released in the US in 2014) has the most critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes of all his movies, suggesting that perhaps this is, as of January 2017, his most widely released picture on the English-language film circuit. So what is it? Judging by the title and Sono’s reputation, is it a controversially gory, emotionally harrowing epic of an indie flick?
Well, not the second part, anyway.
Photo courtesy of The Japan Times.
This particular feature is stuffed with so many characters and boasts such an unbelievable plotline (the head of a yakuza gang, as a gift to his wife who will soon be released from jail, wants to make a movie starring their daughter) that at the surface it seems impossible for this to be charming, funny, and fun – which it is.
This is due in large part to a nearly note-perfect cast, including Tomochika as the mother (who is exceptionally, subtly funny as the tough wife whose one wish is seeing her daughter on the big – or small – screen), Jun Kunimura as her husband and instigator of the movie (bringing a degree of gravitas with a wink), Hiroki Hasegawa as the enthusiastic movie producer (whose impish smile and maniacal laugh are only matched by an amount of charisma that makes it completely believable when he rallies a room full of yakuza to pose for a shot), and of course a cameo from a comedian or two (I yelled at the sight of Itsuji Itao).
Photo courtesy of RogerEbert.com.
I preemptively feared this film would be style over substance, but I was quickly proven wrong. The enthusiasm of the characters, matched with the obvious enthusiasm of a director for a script he had written 15 years prior, infected me.
Perhaps most beautifully executed is the scene where Muto, the yakuza boss, describes how he’d like the film’s one and only scene – a real-life fight – to play out, but this is not conveyed through voice over. Instead, it is presented in an exquisitely choreographed sequence that shows, dreamlike, what would happen if the rooms of a castle came apart to reveal a film crew on all sides, surging through the final battle like a swarm of hornets.
Sometimes the film feels too loose. Shots run a little longer than necessary and the dialogue can get repetitive. But this lingering look at the characters places the audience so completely within the world that the length of scenes can immediately be forgiven. The viewers spend so much time with the characters’ relentless zeal that it begins to become something to be cherished, and Sono’s delight in absurdities is infectious (Muto asks a guy plucked off the street what millimeter to shoot on. He answers “about this big” and holds up a thumb and forefinger, which is dutifully mimicked by Muto to show other members of the crew).
Photo courtesy of AudiencesEverywhere.net.
The violence in the last act is bloodier than the bloodiest imaginable, but after all the setup that leads up to this moment, it feels inevitable. Even if the visuals are gratuitous, the concept isn’t; it makes sense for the story. And if the flying body parts are gratuitous, it is ridiculous in a way that exactly matches the overall tone.
The final shot, extended long past when the credits might be expected to roll, seemed overblown until I realized: Oh, this is about movies. It’s about making the most ridiculous, over-the-top film you could possibly conceive, and loving the idea so much that you would die for it.
It’s impossible not to get caught up in that level of enthusiasm.