Fifty-four Japanese schoolgirls leap en masse into the path of an oncoming subway train. This is just one of the indelible images from Sion Sono’s 2001 film Suicide Club. Sono has since proved himself one of the most daring filmmakers today, exemplifying the Japanese concept of “ero guro nansensu” (erotic grotesque nonsense).
Sono’s circuitous path to filmmaking came out of a career as an avant-garde poet cum performance artist. Curiously, Sono’s early films were more informed by the French New Wave than shock horror. But since Suicide Club he’s gone full throttle on a search and destroy mission to emulate the outré nature of the “extreme” films he enjoyed in his youth. Sono made his first appearance at the New York Asian and the Japan Cuts Film Festivals with his 2007 film Exte, a J-horror parody about evil hair extensions. This year he returned with two films: Love Exposure, a four-hour epic about the son of a Christian priest who transforms into a ninja-like pervert photographer, and Be Sure to Share, a surprisingly quiet tear jerker about a son and father coping with death. The Brooklyn Rail caught up with Sono at The Japan Society for an illuminating chat.
Rail: Love Exposure is said to be based on a true story of a friend of yours?
SION SONO: It’s 10% true and 90% lies. The only part that’s true is that I have a friend who is a professional voyeur photographer, a professional “hentai” (pervert), and he had a little sister who fell into the clutches of a cultish religion. Like in the film they were able to retrieve her and she was able to leave the church.
Rail: And all the other stuff in the movie, for example cross-dressing and Christianity, where did that come from?
SONO: A lot of elements are from the crazy life I’ve personally had. For example when I was 17 I ran away from home and was starving on the street and someone on the street said to me “Do you believe in God?” I said “If I believe in your God will I stop being hungry?” They said yes, so I went along with them and joined this cult which turned out to be The Moonies—the one that started out in Korea and owned the Washington Times.
Rail: Your earlier films are not the “ero guro nansensu” type that you’ve come to be known for.
SONO: I think a lot of young filmmakers and film students love Goddard and films like that. But when you reach a certain level of maturity in your filmmaking you become more interested in what was instinctually interesting to you when you were younger. If you’re honest with yourself you realize that might be more of the sort of films you want to make.
Rail: That’s why the scorpion character from those 70s women-in-prison films with Meiko Kaji is in Love Exposure?
SONO: Like Sasori (Scorpion) there are a lot of things that subconsciously pop out in my films that I liked when I was a kid. I really did love a lot of extreme films. I didn’t just prefer them, that’s pretty much all I watched when I was young, for example, those documentaries by Jacopetti (Mondo Cane, Goodbye Uncle Tom). This was in elementary school. I watched about five movies a day. In 6th grade the teacher asked us what kind of girl we liked and everyone started naming TV stars and pop idols and I said Ingrid Bergman.
Rail: So you wanted to be a filmmaker since then?
SONO: No. I always loved films very much but I felt I was too shy and withdrawn to actually make movies. I hated working in groups so I really wanted to be a writer, a novelist or a manga writer, something I can do all by myself. So I stated writing poetry, and initially was writing on paper and in notebooks, but that was just not enough. I started writing on public walls and then I started taking pictures of (what I had written on) those walls. Then I started experimenting with video and with 8mm film in terms of what I had written. Eventually I turned the camera towards myself with my poetry, so through this process I became liberated. At first I started speaking, next I shot my friends, and then came drama.
Rail: Please talk about the motif of family dysfunction that’s been present in a lot of your work.
SONO: There are more straightforward problems like alcohol in the family, divorce, these sorts of dysfunctions cause children to have rebellious periods growing up, maybe run away from home and have problems, creating fissure in the family structure. This is something I portray in (the sequel/prequel to Suicide Club) Noriko’s Dinner Table. I think though, there are also kids who might grow up in the most ordinary family with a normal childhood and they actually might be carrying a darker side.
Rail: Please talk about your upcoming project based on the non-fiction book Lords of Chaos (about heinous crimes committed by members of the Norwegian black metal scene)?
SONO: I think out of my recent work this will have a lot of the elements I’ve wanted to express in filmmaking. Norway is such a peaceful country and you would think on the surface that it’s not an environment that would produce such criminal people. In terms of the characters in the film there’s no one who has any parents you could point to and hold responsible for how their kids turned out. They’re all good people. It’s based on true stories so I’ve done a lot of research on these people who were burning down churches and there were a lot of suicides. These people actually came from blessed family situations and you would think there’s no need for them to go out and commit any of these crimes. Before I even made Love Exposure I wanted to make films overseas and I was here doing promotion work. After Love Exposure I got a call from an American producer inviting me to work on this project.
Rail: You describe Norway as a peaceful country and we think of Japan as peaceful. Yet we do see underlying violence in the “ero guro nansensu” and extreme films that come from Japan.
SONO: A lot of the films from Japan that make it over here, my work included, are far from the mainstream. Japan every year does have 30,000 suicides. That’s more than people who die in war. I touch on this in Love Exposure as well, but in Japan there is an invisible war going on.
Rail: Please talk about Be Sure to Share?
SONO: In terms of theme it’s exactly the same as my other work. It’s about a family, its breakdown, and then the revitalization of relationships and communication. Previously I would show a family within the context of society, but with this film I really wanted to concentrate on the interpersonal relationships so I removed all the societal elements to focus on a very personal story of the bonds between people.
David Wilentz dreams in color.