Japanese auteur and explorer of the darker recesses of human behaviour Sono Sion follows up his off the wall serial killer shocker “Cold Fish” with more true crime psycho drama in “Guilty of Romance”. The film again reunites the director with gravure idol turned actress Megumi Kagurazaka, with whom he worked with on “Cold Fish”, and who also features in his upcoming “Himizu”, starring here alongside Makoto Togashi (“Memories of Matsuko”), Miki Mizuno (“Hard Revenge, Milly”) and Kanji Tsuda (“Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl”) in a tale of a bored housewife falling into depravity as she explores her sexual identity. Having played in a significantly longer 144 minute form to a packed house at Cannes, the film has now been released in a director approved international version, edited to 112 minutes, presumably to more specifically focus on its themes and main protagonists.
The film is framed by a murder investigation carried out by Miki Mizuno’s detective Kazuko Yoshida (heavily trimmed in the international version), in which female body parts have been found attached to 2 mannequins in an abandoned house in Tokyo’s love hotel district. In flashback, the case revolves around Megumi Kagurazaka as Izumi, a housewife on the verge of turning 30 and still hoping to do something with her life. Although she loves her writer husband (Kanji Tsuda), his lack of sexual interest in her and obsession with keeping order in the household pushes her to find a job working in a supermarket. There, she is approached by a modelling scout, and although it quickly becomes apparent that the work is basically pornography, she finds through it a newfound happiness and confidence in her body. This leads her to various encounters with men, and eventually to the intense and enigmatic female academic Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), who pushes her to express her desires in ever more extreme fashion.
“Guilty of Romance” represents the third part of Sono Sion’s thematically connected ‘hate trilogy’, though whilst it does have a great deal in common with “Love Exposure” and “Cold Fish”, it also stands alone as a very unique piece of work which, like his earlier “Strange Circus”, is likely to be a challenging affair, even for devotees. Explicitly literary, and repeatedly referencing Kafka, the film is arguably Sono’s more searching yet, with a cruelly philosophical edge and a disturbingly ambiguous attitude towards his female protagonists and their suffering. Starting off almost like a semi-humorous Japanese take on Buñuel’s “Belle de jour”, the film rapidly picks up speed, with human desire being as an all-engulfing fire that torments and tortures, the characters being trapped by their own lack of self-awareness or knowledge of what they want, at the mercy of their physical pleasures. Through this, the film does have a horribly mocking air at times, especially in its handling of the demonic yet wretched Mitsuko, whose attempts to intellectualise her twisted passions inevitably go badly wrong.
Although on the surface the film does court accusations of misogyny, with its female characters being punished for their own wantonness, the male figures fare little better, being portrayed as impotent rulers of an ordered and ostensibly patriarchal society that live in terror of women and hide an animalistic and masochistic side behind masks of hypocrisy. Even then, the film refuses to provide any answers or catharsis, and is all the more unnerving and fascinating for its lack of an obvious moral compass. Indeed, although Izumi’s swift slide into degeneracy is shocking and seedy, at the same time it clearly brings with it a sense of liberation and empowerment, albeit without purpose or real self awakening. This does mean the film makes for quite hard going at times, and even by the director’s own standards is a pretty bleak and hopeless affair, but whilst it quite ferociously pushes the viewer to cast their gaze inwards, it’s never anything less than wholly gripping in its awfulness, right up to its heartless final revelations and conclusion.
Of course, all of this would count for little without Sono’s masterful handling, and the film again confirms him as a top cinematic craftsman, and one of the few directors willing and able to match extreme content with breathtaking artistry. Shot with a cool, detached air, the film is visually stunning throughout, with some gorgeously grotesque imagery and compositions, and some truly amazing shots scattered throughout. The use of colour is amazing, contrasting the cold cleanliness of Izumi’s normal life with the lurid neon of the sex hotels and back alley sleaze which gradually consumes her. As usual, Sono throws in a number of highly original touches, and the film is frequently and colourfully surreal, in a near hypnotic fashion which works well to drag the viewer into its garish and sleazy world. This sits well with the soundtrack, which consists mostly of baroque classical pieces, adding a further air of ominous doom to the proceedings.
In many ways, the film belongs to actress Megumi Kagurazaka as much as it does to Sono, turning in an incredibly brave and fearless performance that sees her shedding her clothes during most of her scenes. Achieving a perfect balance between naivety and growing, self-destructive sexual freedom, she makes for a sympathetic, or at least pitiable protagonist and holds the film together through its ambitious narrative, acting as the viewer’s tragic guide during its descent into hell. Although not as wilfully bloody as “Cold Fish”, the film gets very graphic in places, with a great deal of sex and nudity, much of it rough and alarmingly bestial. As ever though, Sono never goes for cheap taboo breaking, and even when at its most over the top, the film stays true to its themes.
“Guilty of Romance” marks another masterpiece from Sono Sion, and whilst its ambiguous handling of the complex issue of human sexuality and its dark side may prevent it from finding the kind of wider appeal enjoyed by “Love Exposure” and his other recent works, it is at the very least their equal. Provocative and darkly captivating, and benefitting from some savagely hallucinogenic visuals and an astonishing turn from Megumi Kagurazaka, it’s a unique, stunning piece of film which again shows Sono to be one of the few true cinematic geniuses and poets working today.
Shion Sono (director) / Shion Sono (screenplay)
CAST: Miki Mizuno … Kazuko yoshida
Makoto Togashi … Mitsuko ozawa
Megumi Kagurazaka … Izumi kikuchi