by Matt Levine
Though the Japanese director Sion Sono has released 30 features to date (with four more in the can already), I have to admit I have only seen one: 2008’s Love Exposure, a four-hour mindfuck involving upskirt photography, religious cults, kidnapping, crucifixion, and other perversions. It also happens to be one of the best movies of the 21st century, a jam-packed blitzkrieg on how faith, sex, love, and the media intersect in the modern age. Needless to say I was eager to see Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, a bloodstained ode to cinema that has been bouncing around film festivals’ midnight programs for the last year and a half. While it doesn't have the same audacious insanity of Love Exposure (what does?), his latest offering is a deliriously entertaining movie about the allure of movies: perpetually cranked up to 11, reveling in its own outrageousness, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is the perfect film for those who think Tarantino is too mild-mannered.
Director: Sion Sono
Producers: Takuyuki Matsuno, Tsuyoshi Suzuki
Writer: Sion Sono
Cinematographer: Hideo Yamamoto
Editor: Jun'ichi Itô
Music: Sion Sono
Cast: Jun Kunimura, Fumi Nikaidô, Shin'ichi Tsutsumi, Hiroki Hasegawa, Gen Hoshino, Tomochika, Itsuji Itao, Hiroyuki Onoue, Tak Sakaguchi, Tetsu Watanabe, Tasuku Nagaoka, Akihiro Kitamura, Megumi Kagurazaka
Premiere: August 29, 2013 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 7, 2014
US Distributor: Drafthouse Films
As in Love Exposure, Sono begins with a lengthy prologue to introduce his characters (or make that caricatures). There are the yakuza bosses Muto (Jun Kunimura) and Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi), embroiled in a violent gang war that causes the latter and his goons to visit Muto’s home with the intention of massacring him and his family. When they arrive, they find only Muto’s wife Shizue (Tomochika), chopping carrots alone in the kitchen, her immense butcher’s knife providing grisly foreshadowing. The unfazed Shizue proceeds to chop her would-be assassins to bits (with the exception of Ikegami, whom she lets live), causing a lake of crimson blood to pool on her spotless white floors. (Why Don’t You Play in Hell? has basically nothing in common with Kubrick, but this scene provides the most viscerally intense use of sanguine redness since all that blood poured out of the elevators in The Shining.) It’s at this exact moment that Muto and Shizue’s angelic daughter Mitsuko returns home, gliding over the blood like a Slip’N Slide; she smiles cherubically at the bloodsoaked Ikegami and demands that he clean up this mess, leading us to wonder what mayhem she’s seen at the hands of her parents. Young Mitsuko is an aspiring movie star, thrust into the limelight by her gangster father; the first, disorienting scene of the movie is a jingle she sings for a toothpaste commercial, a catchy tune about “gnashing your teeth hard.”
But wait, there’s more: the first ten minutes also introduce us to the so-called Fuck Bombers, a movie-obsessed squad of amateur filmmakers who, when they’re not hanging around the local theater, roam the streets with 8mm cameras, filming whatever they can. (What’s the meaning of the name The Fuck Bombers? Absolutely nothing, though it does seem like the kind of thing a petulant group of teenage film buffs would call themselves.) Headed by the energetic Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa), the Fuck Bombers enlist a petty crook named Sasaki in their gang and tell him he’ll be the Japanese Bruce Lee (they even outfit him with the yellow track suit made famous in Game of Death). Hanging around the projection booth of a movie theater that whirs with 35mm celluloid, the gang ominously claims that all they want to do is make one masterpiece, even if it kills them.
With a jarring abruptness that defines the movie as a whole, we flash-forward ten years. Shizue has been imprisoned this whole time for her butchering of Ikegami’s gang; her husband, the crocodilian Muto, visits her in jail and promises that their daughter Mitsuko’s first feature film, in which she has a starring role, will be premiered on the day of her release. (Why Don’t You Play in Hell? doesn't have much interest in taking these characters seriously, but this is about as close as the movie comes to emotional sincerity.) But there’s a problem: Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaidô), now all grown up, her sex appeal half-sweet and half-vicious, has fled the movie studio. Meanwhile, Ikegami—who has been obsessed with Mitsuko for the last decade, and who has brought his gang to a castle and forced them to don kimonos—plans on resparking his gang war with Muto, for reasons that are too convoluted to follow.
For the Fuck Bombers, meanwhile, all is not well: the movie house they’ve frequented for years has become a derelict ruin, its 35mm projectors sitting unused. While Hirata and some of his cohorts continue their zealous amateur moviemaking, their 8mm cameras now replaced by tiny, gleaming digital camcorders, Sasaki abandons them in a fit of rage, dismayed by their decade-long rut of obscurity. The scene in which Sasaki leaves them is a mindboggling olio, containing fight choreography, madcap farce, and a plaintive string score suggesting melodrama; it’s as though Sono has decided to throw as many different genres as possible into this scene, emphasizing the artifice of all of them. It’s in this part of the film that Sono hammers home his elegy for celluloid—and, at the same time, his irrepressible belief that cinema will continue to thrive, its potential inexhaustible, even if its technological means are now digital rather than analogue. The Fuck Bombers might now be the only people loitering in the neighborhood movie theater, but that doesn’t stop them from believing that their days of cinematic glory will still come.
And in a way they do; the careening plot eventually has Hirata and his gang enlisted by the Muto clan to film their real-life (or is it?) assault on Ikegama, following the yakuza with a truckload of lights, sound equipment, and 35mm cameras as they prepare their assault. For Muto, this is a way to provide Mitsuko with the starring role she always wanted, and thus finish his “gift” for his incarcerated wife; for the movie-obsessed Ikegami, who agrees to help stage the climactic fight that might decimate his clan, he can finally become a star while getting close to the woman of his dreams (who may or may not end up eviscerating him). The brawl that closes the film is an orgy of blood and dismembered limbs and self-reflexivity, the cameras and grips constantly visible on the fringes of the ultraviolence.
“Over the top” doesn’t begin to describe this film; Why Don’t You Play in Hell? ascends past the top and keeps on skyrocketing, sending geysers of blood all over notions of subtlety and decency. If you like realism, character development, and narrative cohesion, stay as far away as possible. If, on the other hand, you see cinema at least partially as a series of formal elements with an overwhelming potential for artifice and deconstruction—as Sono does—the film will prove irresistible, a meta-smorgasbord that pays tribute to the stylish excitement that movies can offer. Drawing from an aesthetic arsenal including long tracking shots, gargantuan onscreen titles, dazzling lighting schemes, surreal dream sequences, slow-motion, and assaultive jump cuts, Sono comes to represent a rampaging bull in a cinematic china shop.
It’s all incredibly ludicrous, of course, but there’s a nugget of truth beneath it all: every character in the movie, from film nerds referencing Eugene Schüfftan to the most vicious yakuza boss, bows down to the gods of media. (Indeed, Hirata maintains his boundless optimism because he believes the “Cinema God” will answer his prayers.) In extremely hyperbolic ways, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? reiterates the McLuhanesque belief that if something isn’t filmed—if it’s not visually reproducible—it doesn’t exist. (This idea is also powerfully conveyed in J. Hoberman’s The Dream Life.) The very fact that Hirata and his gang are armed with film cameras allows them to dictate reality, as when they interrupt a streetfight at the beginning and tell the brawlers how the action will be staged. The yakuza go along with this inane gang-war-as-film scenario because it gives their carnage validation; they know their actions have significance because they’re up there on the screen, playing out larger than life. As one yakuza says, “We’re realists and they’re fantasists…and realism will lose!” So it goes in a modern world where no war, no atrocity, no event exists unless it’s visible on television or the internet; Why Don’t You Play in Hell? just presents this idea in the most outlandish, orgiastic way possible.
It should be said that the film’s bombastic tone wears out its welcome at times. Most of the characters are so absurdly buffoonish that some of the set pieces become tedious rather than electrifying. This is especially true of a police detective character who speaks with the sputtering excess of an anime villain, and who leads a climactic, bloodstained siege that introduces the theme of police brutality without saying anything at all about it. (This is probably more of an issue for American audiences—for whom the reality of police violence is disturbingly overt—than for viewers in Japan, where relations between the police and their communities are generally less problematic.) And even though cartoonish brutality is the point, the offhanded decimation of so many characters becomes a little mind numbing after a while.
But Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is primarily a formalist exercise in the artifice of cinema, and as such it’s wildly entertaining, balancing pitch-black comedy with a visual style that refuses to rest for even a moment. Dead characters reappear moments later and yakuza fighters take a break from their carnage to maintain continuity between takes—this is the kind of insanity that cinema enables. The title is never explained (and it’s also changed from the original Japanese title, which translates as Why Is Hell (So) Bad?), but the bloodstained battle that takes up the last twenty minutes does seem to portray an apocalypse both hellish and playful—awful in its violence yet breathtaking in its exuberant energy. Maybe this is why, in one of the few moments that comes close to rueful self-reflexivity, one innocent character gawks at all the carnage surrounding him and asks, in a tone of desperate unease: “Isn’t this a movie?”