Shion Sono’s films are known for their jarring, constant shifts in tone — a style which reached its apotheosis with 2008’s four-hour masterpiece Love Exposure — and his latest to get an American release, Himizu, is no exception. In Himizu scenes of childish enthusiasm for a boat rental company butt up against patricide, suicide, and unhinged knife rampages, but while Love Exposure’s extremities were united by a shared breathless enthusiasm and Suicide Club and Cold Fish focused more on plumbing the depths of depravity, Sono’s latest is, at the end of it all, a baroque tragedy. Set amidst the wreckage of the 2011 tsunami and the accompanying Fukushima reactor meltdown, the film is an elegy to contemporary Japanese society, a hypnotic, disjointed, and deeply felt image of Japan traveling into the abyss, its inability to reconcile its social narratives with the economic and technological failures upon which those self-images now rest, spelling slow, prolonged disaster.
There’s echoes here of a current social movement in Japan, known as “herbivore men,” wherein men remove themselves from jobs and relationships, isolating themselves from social society while still going about basic self-care rituals, shopping, and so forth — early on, the young male lead of Himizu declares, “I want to be ordinary!” in the face of exhortations from his middle school teacher that Japan pick itself up from the tragedy and continue reaching for greatness.
But Himizu is still a Sono picture, not a treatise on Japanese society: it is a fragmented, horrific grappling, as fraught with clichés and genre tropes as it is with philosophizing, and defined as much by mania and incoherence as it is by any overarching structure or conceptual foundation. The plot, such as it is, is almost impossible to recount, revolving around a young girl (Shôta Sometani as Keiko) obsessed with French poetry and infatuated with a fourteen year old boy (Shôta Sometani as Yuichi), who himself is in possession of a boat rental company and a father who likes to make it clear that the boy’s death would be very welcome (insurance money, you see). It spirals out from there, with plots, characters, and accompanying atrocities surfacing and disappearing from the film’s endlessly roiling surface. Hyperactivity and digression are ever-present at all levels, alternating between furious cutting and bravado long takes with little regard for story content, and pocked with cutaways to isolated images of the wreckage of the tsunami. With these images in particular, Sono transforms the new physical landscape of Japan into a psychic one through a series of sequences in which he inserts characters and objects from the film’s primary narratives into a swath of destroyed terrain without narrative justification, the ruined territory performing as a psychic playground of misery and disorientation.
Indeed, if anything marks Himizu as a huge step forward for Sono (and it is, almost improbably so, after the stunning leap into new territory that was Love Exposure) it’s the director’s newfound embrace of documentary in the tsunami footage. Shot back-to-back with Land of Hope, apparently a straightforward drama also set in post-meltdown Japan, Sono has found renewed relevance in his up-to-the-minute and deliriously psychotic engagement with the new physical landscape of Japan. This desperate engagement with contemporary society reverberates throughout, as in an upsetting and exhilarating moment involving the murder of a Japanese neo-Nazi played out in front of a TV inexplicably reporting on the Fukushima reactor in light of Japan’s relation to God and salvation. It’s a bravado moment that rests far outside the bounds of tasteful filmmaking, but if anything, it’s also a moment that proves that Sono’s disregard for good taste in both mainstream and art house contexts opens up possibilities for scathing emotional reactions and political resonances rarely seen in contemporary film.
Sono is a desperately needed voice in film — neither a staid reiterate of Europe-fetishism nor a fabulist in the vein of most of the East Asian filmmakers to receive stateside acclaim, his cinematic innovations are made without recourse to enshrined end goals, breathlessly new and unafraid of idiocy and failure. Wrapped in a single, endlessly reiterated, mournful musical cue that ties its deep absurdity together under the banner of the deeply tragic, Himizu will make you weep. It’s the work of a true master, with antecedents in gonzo Japanese filmmaking and in the deadly serious camp of American filmmakers such as Greg Araki, but with a syntax and cultural specificity all his own. Somehow surpassing the highs of Love Exposure, it’s perhaps his best work yet.