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In The Sion Sono, the most subversive filmmaker working in Japanese cinema today comes face to face with the son of arguably the most subversive Japanese filmmaker of all time. While Arata Oshima’s documentary-making approach bears few similarities to his late father Nagisa — most well-known internationally for Realm of the Senses and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence — he certainly knows where to look when seeking to capture the spirit of a maverick.
Sion Sono has already established himself as one of the most idiosyncratic artists of his generation, with nearly 50 films of various genres — rite-of-passage stories fuelled with social transgressions, all-out sex-and-gore thrillers, hip-hop musicals and warm human drama — and Arata Oshima’s documentary has vividly revealed how there’s much more to the one cult-figure persona which seems to precede his of his films’ presence at home and abroad.
Filmed throughout 2014 and specifically around the production of Sono’s sci-fi adventure The Whispering Star, The Sion Sono provides a vivid portrayal of a complex individual at work, someone who could be a composed pragmatist at times and — especially after a few drinks — a crazy monster at others. The documentary has already started its international run with screenings at New York (in the Japan Cuts 2016 program) and South Korea (at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival), and it could provide an interesting and timely piece to go with Sono’s early work doing the festival rounds as part of a programme of Japanese Super-8 films from the 1970s and ‘80s.
Indeed, Sono spent years as an indie rebel in Japanese cinema before he attained international prominence. Dabbling in both the written word and also the moving image, he spent his 20s and 30s as a counter-culture icon with his grainy slash-and-burn work such as I Am Sion Sono!!!, Bicycle Sighs and Bad Film; it was only in 2005, when he was already 44, that he emerged out of the margins with Noriko’s Dinner Table. But the enfant terrible has remained a man-child all the same: this is a loose cannon who, in Oshima’s documentary, would readily describe Japan as a country which overrates formality and swears by the motto of “quantity over quality”.
Sono made the last remark on stage, in a suit and bowtie and neat haircut, after receiving a prominent lifestyle magazine’s Man of the Year award. However much he has flirted with the mainstream these days — incredibly, he topped box-office charts last year with the gangster flick Shinjuku Swan — he still seems to hold the establishment at arms’ length, as he tells Oshima at various instances how he has been fulfilling “indecent” commissions for some time (he released a whopping five films in 2015), how certain celebrated compatriots operate in a genre called Cannes, and his country frowns upon creatives who offer work that “let down and embarrass Japan as a nation”.
By following Sono around at work and at home, however, Oshima also allows the viewer a glimpse of the filmmaker beyond the much-bandied firebrand persona. After recounting their first encounter with Sono — in which the drunken director arrived late and slept through a pre-production meeting — actors Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaidou say they now consider him a receptive, adorable father figure. Meanwhile, his wife Megumi Kagurazaka offers sometimes emotional recollections of the challenges of living and working with Sono, who is merciless to her on set and useless regarding housework and taking care of himself.
At one point, Kagurazaka tells Oshima how Sono is very narrowly focused on what likes to do. The Sion Sono provides ample evidence to that. Of course, there’s his display of concentration on the set in the irradiated areas of Fukushima for The Whispering Star; but Oshima also traces this trait all the way to Sono’s childhood, as he visits the director’s childhood home and films the incredibly detailed (and illustration-heavy) film reviews, essays and short stories Sono started to write (and sell to his classmates and even his sister) since the second grade.
There are of course some questions which remain unasked and areas uncovered: his dedication in making films about the Fukushima nuclear disaster is not exactly addressed, and Sono’s appearance as a speaker at what appears to be an anti-militarization protest is only shown as one of many images at the film’s closing credits. For someone who has a history of organizing proto-Occupy action art in the 1990s and has a vast banner with the word “revolution” on it, the relationship between art and activism should have been addressed. So it is that The Sion Sono is not exactly a definitive documentary on its subject, but it does offer a promising peek behind Sono’s radical veneer.
Production company: Netzgen in a co-presentation with Nikkatsu
Director: Arata Oshima
Producers: Naoko Komuro, Aki Maeda
Director of photography: Hidenori Takahashi
Editor: Yoshihiro Okawa
Music: Tomonobu Kikuchi
International Sales: Nikkatsu
No ratings; 97 minutes
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