A mainstay of the international festival circuit for well over a decade now, poet-turned-filmmaker Sion Sono is something of a stranger to Los Angeles: Only a handful of his movies has been released here despite courting acclaim and controversy elsewhere around the world. Guilty of Romance and Himizu — which are receiving a joint, one-week run at Cinefamily after making the festival rounds in 2011 — are thus long-overdue newcomers.
To acquaint you with some of his best-known films, a brief primer: Suicide Club opens on a group of 54 schoolgirls cheerfully throwing themselves in front of an oncoming subway car before it gets really weird; the four-hour Love Exposure blends a group of cultists with the apparent art of up-skirt photography; and Cold Fish is about a tropical fishmonger-cum–serial killer. Ghastly endeavors all, but made with such panache that they're compelling even when they're disgusting.
It may come as a surprise, then, that Himizu is as sedate as it is. Sono's post-Fukushima examination of his native Japan grapples with the difficulties of coming of age in a stifled nation and frequently returns to the final lines of a 15th-century poem by François Villon: "I know death who devours all. I know all — save for myself." Sono co-opts these repeated lines as both a mantra for his characters and a sort of alternate national anthem for a country in transition.
Fifteen-year-old Sumida is repeatedly told to dream big, to meet his unique-flower potential; neither the high nor the low appeals to him, however, and he aspires to nothing more than the ordinary. (This is embodied by the title, which in Japanese means mole — the sort of creature whose unremarkable existence Sumida would like to emulate.)
March 11, as the Fukushima disaster is known, exists for Sumida's elders as a life-altering watershed: the day their long-gestating problems became impossible to ignore. The two threads are linked, of course, with the national and personal being different strains of the same problem. (In this way the film is not unlike Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg, which also tells of personal awakening amid a troubled national backdrop.) Himizu is occasionally heavy-handed in its delivery of its ideas — not much occurs that isn't a direct comment on either Fukushima or Sumida's growing pains — but it's also a refreshingly sensitive character study.
Guilty of Romance, the more accomplished and challenging of the two movies, begins far more disturbingly: at a crime scene involving corpses whose heads have been replaced with mannequin heads. There's some cryptic writing on the wall in what the investigating officers hope is only blood, and thus the stage is set for Sono's tale of a woman in trouble — much of it centered around an enigmatic locale known only as the Castle. ("Is it Kafka's Castle?" Izumi, our protagonist, asks in a moment that's as strangely funny as it is desperate.) Most disturbing about Izumi's semi-voluntary descent into pornography and prostitution is that nearly all of it is enabled by other women who've become more cruelly adept at surviving in their male-dominated society: They've learned that the only way to thrive is to become part of the problem, and they take up their new roles with verve and tenacity.
A passing reference to Ibsen's A Doll's House ends up being an early clue to making sense of the narrative: Being alone in her master of a husband's house for 14 hours a day doesn't suit Izumi, and so she ventures beyond her comfortable confines into the outside world. What she finds is often nightmarish and may be seen as punishment for daring to challenge the status quo, but the film seems intended as a feminist tract.
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Taken together, the two make for an intriguingly complementary double feature. Where the one highlights an angry young man both struggling and refusing to come into his own, the other focuses on a once-subservient woman whose quietly domineering husband is the sort of man Sumida might grow up to be. (Sono's yen for classical music is also ever-present: Barber's "Adagio for Strings" can be heard in Himizu, while the adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony plays over Guilty of Romance.)
In their own divergent ways, both are deeply troubled by — and critical of — the institutionalized repression their characters are made to navigate on a daily basis. It's this stifled, patriarchal environment that most accounts for (but doesn't excuse) the more depraved characters' lurid behavior.
None of which would matter much if Sono's directorial flourishes didn't make it clear that he's always in control (if only just barely) of his grisly material and that depiction doesn't equal endorsement. Both films toe a dangerous line — they're as bizarrely moralist as they are transgressive.
SION SONO DOUBLE FEATURE | Cinefamily | Jan. 18-24 | cinefamily.org