Since barreling into the international eye with 2002’s Suicide Club Japanese auteur Sion Sono has walked a fine line between exploitation and serious studies of human darkness. His films have generated controversy for attacking social decay with over-the-top, horror movie style and twisted acid-trip narratives, and movies such as Strange Circus inspire debate that finds half the room offended by the other half’s declarations of “genius”.
There is no safe way to approach the subject of incest. No attempt to explore domestic abuse will be free from criticism. These are risks every filmmaker takes when traveling into the dangerous corners of the human mind and Sono’s response to the challenge is garish settings, incomprehensible events and an almost celebratory fetishization of degradation. What Strange Circus achieves is calling attention to the viewer’s enjoyment of a movie that only the most jaded fan of cinema could dismiss as less than shocking.
Mitsuko’s (the older is played by Mai Takahasi, the younger by Rie Kuwana) life ends when her father Gozo’s (Hiroshi Oguchi) voracious sexuality begins to consume her, first by being hidden in a cello case to watch her parents in bed, then inevitably by direct violence. She responds to these violations by reshaping her identity into a dual existence with her mother Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki) who, upon discovering what’s going on, reverts to an animalistic and brutal competition with Mitsuko. There’s no escape for either the victim or her failed protector– school provides no solace as Gozo is the principal who addresses the classes every morning via closed circuit broadcasts. The situation finds bleak resolution when mother and daughter struggle at the top of the stairs.
Resolution might be the wrong word. Taeko (also Miyazaki) is a writer notorious for her pornographic and violent novels. Her publisher is eagerly anticipating the latest money-maker, another book about the suffering of a young girl. She’s difficult to work with, but takes an interest in a new assistant Yuji (Issei Ishida) who has long been enthralled by her work. Taeko is a mystery: are her novels based on life experiences or the product of a sick but fertile imagination; are rumours of her sexual appetite true? Yuji makes a brothel lobby deal to investigate the woman behind the pen as the novel nears completion.
Although these two fragments are stylistically distant they will eventually converge. This is not to say that questions will be answered so much as you will find the questions you had are replaced by more pressing matters of identity, reality, the fragility of the mind and the scope of inhumanity. This is not a passive viewing experience but a thrown gauntlet, which is Sono’s saving grace. Without forcing the viewer’s complicity and, ultimately, confrontation with the film it may as well be porn.
The script does not flow from A to C via B nor does it follow mathematical conventions. The storylines cross paths and blur, cycle back and flip perspective. There are interruptions, diversions, side plots that don’t always amount to much, but every moment builds to a pressure screaming for release. The dialogue ranges from believable, matter-of-fact exchanges to heavily scripted and theatrical with horrific imagery balanced by absurdist humour. The characters are colorful, humming with a vibrancy that compensates for a lack of backstory.
The cast is strong whether playing it straight or as grotesque cartoons. Masumi Miyazaki effortlessly handles two distinct personalities, imbuing the screen with a sense of schizophrenia. She is the scorned lover, the vicious rival, the unhinged enfant terrible and the fragile victim. Hiroshi Oguchi is unbelievably convincing as the sexual predator and manipulator, not afraid to give himself over to a reprehensible role. As the young Mitsuko Rie Kuwana embodies a young girl whose youth has been wrenched from her, moving as though souless through corridors of blood, then lighting up like a child in her dreamed visits to a Grand Guignol inspired circus. Although less dynamism is required Mai Takahasi delivers both rage and helplessness as the older Mitsuko, subjected to her own private hell. The most fantastical character is reserved for Issei Ishida, a languid performance bereft of passion as required. Removed from the carnal crimes of the other roles, his character remains distinctly as disturbed, repressed, and off-kilter.
Strange Circus sleepwalks through a codeine dream of glamourous rooms and nightmarish corridors. The dressings have been carefully constructed to cause unease or a false sense of security– reality and dreamscapes merge into a contiguous landmass which never allows you to become comfortable in one world or the other. Sono lets the camera lurch, spy and leer instead of jumping around like a slasher flick, so the richness of the color palettes and the methodical lighting can be fully appreciated. Some shots are a little too perfect but they come across as opportunities found, not planned. The sound design is appropriately eerie with certain aural themes repeated musically as well as certain effects. Nothing over the top– no cliches to make you jump.
Strange Circus was released in America by Danger After Dark/TLA Releasing which boasts 5.1 surround and a crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen print. Careful, word on the street suggests there’s a cut version– aim for 108 minutes. Do yourself a favor and don’t watch a screening copy like I did– the motherfucker had text at the top of the frame throughout the entire movie.