'Love & Peace': London Review

Courtesy of Gansis

Sono's sweetest film to date is an agreeably goofy fantasy with turtles all the way down.

Barely pausing for breath between features, Japanese gonzo auteur Sion Sono delivers a surreal musical comedy about a rock star and a super-sized turtle.

The hardest working man in Japanese cinema, prolific cult auteur Sion Sono’s latest surreal offering feels like a genre-warping mash-up of Godzilla, Toy Story and Miracle on 34th Street. But at heart, this offbeat musical comedy is a classic boy-meets-turtle love story. One of six projects that the writer-director of Suicide Club and Tokyo Tribe has scheduled this year, Love & Peace is enjoyably goofy and uncharacteristically sweet for Sono. Following a successful domestic run it is now touring overseas festivals, making its U.K. debut in London this week, with Toronto After Dark to follow next week.

Kyo (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a painfully nerdy Tokyo office clerk who is routinely bullied at work, mocked by strangers on the subway and even personally insulted by the TV news shows he watches in his tiny apartment. His only friend is the pet turtle he buys from a mysterious street vendor, which he names Pikadon, a term derived from the atomic blasts that devastated Japan in World War II. A frustrated musician in his youth, Kyo tells his tiny new companion about his secret ambition to become a stadium-filling rock star and win the heart of his dream girl, kind-hearted co-worker Yuko (Kumiko Aso).

Events take a tragic turn when Kyo is taunted into flushing Pikadon down the toilet, a cruel act he instantly regrets. But his loss also has positive consequences when the turtle joins a subterranean army of abandoned pets and talking toy animals, all living in the sewers with their human master (Toshiyuki Nishida), a boozy alchemist with magical powers. Newly gifted with the ability to grant wishes, Pikadon helps Kyo achieve his superstar dreams.

Above ground, Kyo begins transforming from nerdy nobody to handsome but arrogant glam-rock protest singer, a physical metamorphosis that Hasegawa pulls off impressively, modifying his downtrodden cringe into a regal swagger. Meanwhile, with each new stage in his former owner’s meteoric rise, Pikadon swells in size. By the time Kyo plays a sold-out Christmas show at Tokyo’s new 2020 Olympics stadium, the turtle has grown into a Godzilla-sized monster, rampaging through the city with hopes of a tender reunion.

Love & Peace pushes audience tolerance to the limit on several levels. The tonal shifts are jarring, the saccharine sentimentality often gloopy and much of the broad slapstick comedy gets lost in translation. The scale-model skyscrapers and animatronic animals also look willfully amateurish, with Sono apparently paying homage to the pre-digital golden age of Japanese kaiju movies. His depiction of the music industry is laughably simplistic too, though presumably tongue in cheek.

With its third-act plot twists involving Santa Claus, a homesick doll and a seasonal snowfall, Love & Peace wants to tug our heartstrings as much as blast our senses. It is corny and cartoonish in places, but knowingly so, and way too unpredictable to ever become boring. By toning down the sex and violence that made his reputation, Sono has made his most upbeat and family-friendly film to date, and maybe his weirdest too.

Production companies: Gansis, King Records

Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Kumiko Aso, Toshiyuki Nishida, Kiyohiko Shibukawa

Director, screenwriter: Sion Sono

No rating, 117 minutes

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