DIR/WRI: Sion Sono • PRO: Yoshinori Chiba, Nobuhiro Iizuka • DOP: Sôhei Tanikawa • ED: Jun’ichi Itô • CAST: Megumi Kagurazaka, Makoto Togashi, Miki Mizuno, Kanji Tsuda

Japanese writer-director Sion Sono occupies a similar position within Asian cinema as that of Lars Von Trier in European circles. A restless controversialist and former avant-garde poet, Sono’s films are notable for a fearless and blackly humourous approach to occasionally outré material. A fine example is last year’s Cold Fish, a dense stew of horror and black comedy about a pet shop taken over by a prolific serial killer. At 145 minutes, Cold Fish undeniably overstayed its welcome, and despite its refreshingly provocative style, attracted accusations of over-indulgence on the part of the risk-taking Sono. His new film, Guilty of Romance, approaches a lurid tale of violent sexual awakening with the same potent mix of graphic shock tactics and pitch-black humour. The results, while inviting familiar charges of excess, are never less than compelling.

After a grisly prologue, in which a female detective (Miki Mizuno) at a rain-lashed urban crime-scene discovers the grotesquely mutilated corpses of what appear to be two women, Guilty of Romance begins to relate the tale of a kept young housewife, Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), who is trapped in an oddly chaste marriage to a novelist (Kanji Tsuda), an arrangement in which she seems to exist as little more than a domestic servant. The opening act of the film is sometimes mesmerising, as we are slowly introduced to the ludicrously ritualised daily lives of Izumi and her emotionally distant husband. In their metronomically precise world, individual items – such as the white slippers which greet the husband immediately upon returning from work – begin to assume an absurdly fetishised life of their own.

When Izumi is invited to do some modelling work after a chance encounter in a supermarket, she slowly comes to an awareness of her own sexuality and the powerful currency of feminine allure. However, when she meets the nymphomaniacal Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), who lives a scarcely believable double life as both prostitute and university lecturer, Izumi’s life spirals out of control as she is drawn into a nightmarish world of sexual betrayal, humiliation and exploitation. If glib soundbites are your thing, you could say that Guilty of Romance soon begins to resemble Belle de Jour on bad acid…

The careful momentum built up by Sono in the film’s opening third unravels violently by the film’s mid-section, mirroring Izumi’s descent into the hell of Tokyo’s red-light district, where her poisonous mentor Mitsuko instructs her on the financial value of her body. Sono uses the metaphor of ‘the castle’ – referring frequently to Kafka’s unfinished novel of the same name – as the locus of Mitsuko’s deranged quest for sexual fulfillment. Issues of incest, familial strife and crises of sexual identity are all touched upon as Sono’s scattershot approach allows the film to lurch from dark satire to horror and back again. Certainly not for the faint of heart, the film’s graphic scenes of sex and mutilation sit uneasily alongside its satire of the rigid polity of Japanese society, and the dysfunction which dwells underneath this staid surface. Unfortunately, the film’s wildly incoherent tone obscures any specific ‘message’.

Sono is to be praised for his keen visual sense and use of music and ambient sound effects to create a menacing, disorienting atmosphere, and his cast is uniformly superb – you won’t soon forget Makoto Togashi’s demented intensity as the barking-mad Mitsuko. Ultimately though, Sono’s love of controversy and provocation undermine the film’s insights into the dark side of human sexuality and the contradictions inherent in the polite codes of Japanese society. However, for fans of Sono’s willfully outrageous style, Guilty of Romance is certainly worth catching for its excellent performances, bold directorial flourishes and undeniable visual flair.

Martin Cusack

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
Guilty of Romance is released on 30th September 2011


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