Recommends: Top 15 Sion Sono Films
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
I was rather preoccupied in 2020, delving into the realms of Japanese cinema and best of all discovering Japan’s most subversive and original filmmakers – you know, the usual avoidance of reality. In a year of considerable stress, overwhelming disappointment and struggles to many, no director surprised and delighted me as much, in my search for escapism, as the works of Sion Sono.
From facing Love Exposure (2008) for the first time this year, I fell down the rabbit hole into the extreme, powerful, funny and poignant works of this auteur. In the recent weeks I have been unable to shut up about the man; with each film I uncovered, the further I fell for the wicked wit, the cynical romanticism and brutal sincerity of Japan’s most punk director. A genre-bending master that makes film for the love of film. A writer searching for the humanity in all stories. A man with some exquisite tastes in soundtracks.
With a career spanning forty years, it has only been the past twenty that Sono has been allowed to unleash his particular brand of insane on the world, finding an audience with his cult film Suicide Club (2001) and following it up with countless works of outstanding cinema both artistic and mainstream. He writes some of the best, most complex female characters around. He also handles gore, comedy, drama and horror with equal amounts of finesse and wit. With a merry band of recurring players including Megumi Kagurazaka (who has appeared in the most and also is married to Sono himself), Ami Tomite, Shōta Sometani, Denden and Mitsuru Fukikoshi to name a few, the fluidity of his works, the interconnecting worlds he has laced together makes his films the richer. Something of his liberalism, his boldness both politically and for the sake of humanity makes him all the more endearing, drawing his collaborators and his cinemaniac fans to him again and again.
Here I have compiled some of my favourite’s of the master of madness, a way to purge myself of a borderline obsession.
15. Tokyo Tribe (2014)
To start off my list, an entry that has divided fans. Hailed as a masterpiece Hip-Hop musical of grand scope and ambition by some or considered a bloated pretentious effort by an otherwise bold director, Tokyo Tribe still stands as an interesting experiment in Sono’s catalogue. An adaptation of the 1993 manga of the same name by Santa Inoue, the film follows warring gangs in a dystopian future, a cannibalistic leader of one of the gangs waging war to become top dog… all set to rap verse. There aren’t many directors that can work with that premise and do it so stylishly. It is this reason I include it, an example of Sono’s brazenness as an artist and his success as an adaptor of works whilst sticking to his own stylistic principles.
14. Suicide Club (2001)
Next, I’m making a shocking statement. I didn’t like this film the first time I saw it. Not that I stand by this stance any more, but required revisits and deeper contemplation of the story (which did linger a few days after so not as bad as I first perceived it) both in the context of J-Horror and in Sono’s work as a whole, I grew to appreciate this film much more. After 54 school girls jump in front of a train on a busy Tokyo platform – one of horror’s most unsettling opening scenes of all time – investigations begin into mysterious suicides across the country and a strange online cult that could have something to do with it.
For many this film begins strong and stumbles in its latter half. But it is this latter half which is equal parts weird, funny and grotesque that it’s no wonder that the Americans stayed away from attempting to remake it. Of all the films of the J-Horror successes of the early 2000’s this film stands on its own as the most original. The film displays much of Sono’s trademarks; weird punky musicians/artistes, high school girls, gore and hyper-stylised realities (theirs far more to that list of trademarks). But what we see in Suicide Club is the early manifestations of Sono’s narratives to a more mainstream audience and how his consciousness begins to translate to the screen. He reached his fans with this and it was a major stepping stone in raising his profile amongst international audiences.
13. The Land of Hope (2012)
Having known Sono for shock cinema, I was in for a real treat when I discovered that his genre-bending explored human dramas also. The director was deeply disturbed by the tragic Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Disaster of 2011 and would go on to explore this in many of his films after this. But The Land of Hope was one of his first attempts depicting such a tragedy. Most importantly he uses the opportunity to examine human resilience, life and death as he follows various characters individual experiences in the aftermath of such a traumatic event.
Fictionalising events, families are driven from their homes when a Nuclear disaster following an earthquake leaves the town uninhabitable. An elderly couple remain, a husband desiring to care for his wife suffering from Alzheimer’s, despite losing their livelihood, instead sending off their son and pregnant daughter-in-law to escape radiation exposure. People suffer, the impending death forever on the horizon, the harm the accident will cause to the future generations, the prejudice that accompanies those who escaped radioactive areas, the loss of homes and loved ones… all this and more is part of Sono’s touching story. It’s moving and less outlandish than many of his other films, and all for the better. Such a life-changing event must be captured in its most basic form.
12. Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005)
The sequel/prequel to Suicide Club and as many fans agree, better than its predecessor, Noriko’s Dinner table is a sprawling piece about cults, family and finding ones place, themes that Sono would explore in later works to even greater effect. But this is a brilliant study of dysfunctional households.
A teenage Noriko runs away from home, joining an internet cult in which the bizarre leader, Kumiko, hires out her followers to clients, to act as fake family members. This practice is not uncommon in Japan, these companies do exist, but Sono dives beneath the surface, examines each of his characters psyche, from his protagonist, her sister, her father and her ‘friend’ Kumiko. Disturbing in its depiction of the psychological manipulation, we see as the identity of the characters is stripped away and delusion of happiness and security overcomes them. It is strange and uncomfortable. A study of the fragility of the human mind.
11. Red Post on Escher Street (2020)
His most recent film to appear on this list and one that thrived on festival circuits, it still managed to slip under the radar for many others including myself. Once again less grandiose but not lacking any of the rebelliousness of his early career, Sono decides to tackle the film industry as a metaphor for the human race and how as a collective we are still all individuals with our parts to play. If that sounds like a bad descriptor, it because I can’t explain it any other way.
A famous director puts out a casting call in which people from all walks of life apply, the requirement being an essay to be completed and sent via post. Many are accepted and attend auditions. All their lives intertwine as they fight of the lead in the film. Meanwhile the director desperately tries to find coherency in his story, struggling as a writer and troubled by his past, whilst searching for the best unknown talent to help realize his project. With this, Sono takes the idea of every role matters to extremes. Despite the pettiness, the weirdness, the disturbing qualities of the auditionees backgrounds, they all count to the ultimate story - that without each person there would be no film. It’s a humanists story, funny and strange but powerful in its execution with a final scene that proves that Sono hasn’t lost his anarchic edge.
10. Himizu (2011)
Another film veiled in the aftermath of the Fukushima tragedy, Himizu is Sono’s encapsulated anger towards such an event. Adapted from the manga form the same name by Minoru Furuya, and rewritten by the director following the disaster, the story follows a teenager unwanted by both mother and father alike, surviving in a post-tsunami Japan, living in a shack where he rents out boats. Over time, he seeks to commit violent acts on those he considers wrong-doers all the while being loved from afar by a classmate.
The film is raw, full of rage and angst as the protagonist is driven further and further into the dirt by those who were meant to protect him. These are teens dealing with adult problems, with a series of events so emotionally draining for the viewer it becomes an experience. The word Himizu is a breed of Japanese mole, and so our lead has to burrow up from the dirt and somehow survive. Not everyone loves Himizu, it’s hard to love because it’s pretty depressing most of the time. Yet it moved me just the same and is an example of Sono’s handling of darkness, his capabilities of clinging to hope.
9. Cold Fish (2010)
The second in Sono’s ‘Hate Trilogy’, it’s also his most violent. Sono was inspired by various crime cases, most notably the acts of Japanese serial killers Sekine Gen and Hiroko Kazama, a couple who owned a pet shop and murdered four people. This film probably captures the theme of the trilogy best; a relentless bleakness hangs over the entire feature despite elements of absurdity. He takes things to the extreme and the film holds no remorse for this
The story is about a meek fish shop owner struggling with his rebellious teenage daughter and his equally reserved wife who is tormented by her stepdaughter. After a series of events they befriend a couple who also run a tropical fish shop, if with more flare, but soon he is wrangled into the psychotic world of a violent couple, eventually being implicated in the murders. Blood, sex and violence galore is what Sono is most well-known for in the west, all executed with that excellent sense of humour. The film refuses to hold back, relentless in its hopelessness and decadence.
8. The Whispering Star (2015)
One of the many passion projects penned by Sono in the nineties and unable to be made until the 2010’s, The Whispering Star is his most composed. Seemingly influence by the works of Andrei Tarkovsy and Ingmar Bergman, it is a strange futuristic tale, almost all in black and white, so otherworldly in its composition, it’s a work of art in and of itself. An android travels through space, delivering parcels that take years to arrive to the various humans on a now barren earth, conversing with her spaceship in gentle whispers. In each parcel, there is something precious. People live a semi-restrained existence, enduring despite there being so little left in their world. In time our android tries to understand what life really means.
Sono uses the disaster of Fukushima once again, filming in the prefecture and casting residents to play the few remaining inhabitants left on the wasteland of planet earth. He films the land, desolate in its abandoned state, the steady sprouting of weeds breaking their way through despite the radioactive pollution leaving the land inhospitable. Yet, despite the miserable setting Sono explores the miracles of human existence, the joys of the littlest things that bring us together, unite our relationships. We float though each scene, a dream, so very quiet. Sono’s film is mature and contemplative proof that there is more to him than the madness.
7. Tag (2015)
Now we’re back to the madness. The film opens with another massacre of school girls, this time on a bus in which a mysterious entity slices all but one survivor in half. A bloody mess with bodies’ strewn across a rural road, soon she is on the run from the horror. But this is not the end of it as she finds herself landing in various realties where she is pursued by more carnage, eventually seeking out the truth behind such bizarre events.
For much of the film, it makes no sense, but with a powerful ending and an amazing soundtrack by Mono it all comes together. This strange horror subverts all our expectations in countless twists and turns, with a cast of predominantly all women and intriguing set pieces. Ignore the weak CGI, the graphics are not the point. What Sono has produced is one of the most original films in the action/horror genre as he explores the meaning of existence, exploitation and the roles women must play. You see, Sono gets deep.
6. Guilty of Romance (2011)
The last in the ‘Hate Trilogy’ and equally as bleak as its predecessor, if in more colourful way. The film follows three women and their stories are interlinked; a detective investigating a disturbing homicide, a housewife hiding her nightly promiscuity from her straight-laced husband and a university lecturer who guides her through the sordid night. These are some Sono’s most interesting women as he explores female sexuality, exploitation at the hands of various men and the attempt to reclaim their sexual freedom.
Each of the women either gives into or resists their natural urges and the film challenges our voyeuristic tendencies as an audience, exposing us and our perception of sex industries and female liberalism. It’s a miserable film, using neon pink to symbolize the characters sexual awakening, a shock of colour against sordid hotel rooms and dirty old apartments in the depths of Tokyo’s red light district used for the acts, almost creepy spaces for sacrifice. These are women men should fear, who unite together to use their assets against them. But it is not long before all unravels in Sono’s world. To what extent have these women’s repression driven them to something tormented? Guilty of Romance is complex, with great writing and once again some amazing visualization from an ever bold director. Not to mention some beautiful use of Mahler!
5. Antiporno (2016)
In an attempt to revive their Roman Porno (Romantic Pornography, their own brand of Pink Cinema) series, Nikkatsu studio hired Sion Sono as one of a series of directors. A Roman Porno must meet particular criteria, basically erotic art cinema - hiring Sono to help with such a project was a bold move. An un-erotic film as the title suggests, Antiporno is still a visual delight with probably one of his most stunning set pieces; bold, bright and garish.
A renowned artist and writer marches about her creative space where she eats and sleeps, no walls barring the toilet from the bed to the living space and totally exposed as she speaks about her triumphs to her phantom sister, battling self-doubt and various bouts of nausea. The walls are garnered with her work against bright yellow. One can only imagine the smells in the room; the void surrounded by art of which the protagonist resides is a den of vulgarity. She is an emotionally diseased individual. Her assistant arrives and the woman forces her into degrading acts each more grotesque than the next. In time the character unravels, as life and fantasy collide and she is haunted by past traumas exposed for all to see. With it, Sono examines the voyeurism of cinema and gender roles, creating an interesting character study of his distressed lead and exposing the exploitative nature of the film industry. Antiporno is a work of art, as frame-able as The Whispering Star and about as titillating as bucket of vomit. I love it.
4. Strange Circus (2005)
Speaking of emotionally disturbed writers, Strange Circus takes the biscuit for possibly one of his most messed up on screen. With bizarre sequences of nightmarish corridors and creepy TV screens, secret rooms in mansions, a circus act on an extravagant stage in a strange dreamland, and a mysterious erotic novelist; there are plenty of elements of Gothicism in this unsettling tale. The film unravels as the authors assistant tries to uncover the mystery behind the woman he works for and her latest novel, a story of a family torn apart by incest, murder and abuse. Is it truth or fantasy?
It’s both very Sono and not Sono at all, an incredibly dark story that deserves more recognition even if it’s not entirely palatable to some. I loved its visuals, the luscious reds, the passionate world of the novelist tainted and corrupted. Many scenes left my skin crawling, a cello case now an incredibly grotesque item to me.The film is lacking the tongue-in-cheek tone of his other works but Sono lets it all get very heavy and disturbing, soaking it all up. For one of his early works it truly is one of his best. If only we’d get a UK DVD release so I can watch it again and again.
3. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013)
I don’t think I stopped smiling through this film. It’s one hell of a trip. Another of Sono’s penned in the nineties, Why Don’t You Play in Hell is genuinely mad in the best way possible, serving as both a love letter to cinema and an experiment in visual extremes. Like, literal bloodbaths. But it’s so funny and sincere that it simply adds to the charm. Some of his weirdest characters live in this film, from a mob boss enamored with a toothpaste ad actress, an obnoxious amateur filmmaker and his Bruce lee obsessed lead, a runaway daughter of a yakuza boss. There’s not another film like it.
A filmmaker is hired to make a film for the Yakuza boss, starring his actress daughter, in order to show it to his wife who is imprisoned on behalf of protecting himself and his gang. The subject of the film? A battle with the warring gang, with real life violence; a front to put an end to their rivals once and for all. So much happens in the film before the final act that it doesn’t seem possible that Sono can bring it all together, but when it does, it’s some laugh-out-loud mania that we would never see the likes of in the West. Certainly never done so well. Sono’s love of film comes through, his love of the art and techniques, paying homage to the classic films of old whilst subverting all we would expect from his characters. It’s totally weird, but a real project from the soul that left my own decrepit heart all warm and tingly.
2. Love and Peace (2015)
Pikadooon! 2015 was a busy year for Sono, with seven titles released in that year alone. But my favourite of them all is Love and Peace. Furthermore, it’s another penned in the nineties and realized years later. I spoke about this in my best alternative Christmas films article and I’m gonna speak about it again because if any of his films give you that warm and fuzzy family film vibe, it’s this one. It’s a tokusatsu fantasy meaning it uses lots of special effects, all achieved through puppetry which only enhances than magic of the story, with practical effects always a huge treat for me. It’s like Godzilla meets E.T, if they helped paved the way for a man to realize his rock star dreams through magic.
A man, Ryoichi has given up on his dreams and now works in a company where he is bullied daily, suffering from low self-esteem and a severe case of anxiety gut. He longs for the love of his co-worker, a quiet young woman who tries to stand up for him the best she can. One day, he buys a tiny turtle, naming him Pikadon (which is also the term used in Japan for the sound of the nuclear bomb dropped – he’s making a political statement there too) and here begins the beautiful friendship between the two, inseparable as they are as he plays him songs on the guitar, able to tell his turtle friend all of his deepest desires. That is until Pikadon is discovered by his colleague, for which he is ridiculed. Out of shame, Ryoichi flushes the little turtle down the toilet and immediately regrets it. But soon things begin to work out for the man and as each pine for the other, magical things begin to occur. Sono at his most wholesome, Love and Peace is weird but so cute. I mean like, come on! In folklore, the turtle carried the world on its shell, but in Ryoichi and Pikadon’s lives, the turtle carries his world on his back, that of his best friend. Oh my goodness, I love it so much!
EXTRA: It also includes this banger...
1. Love Exposure (2008)
Sono’s Magnum Opus, totally predictable for my number one but I really don’t care. I love Love Exposure, it’s four hour run time, it’s ballsiness, it’s ridiculousness and its sincerity. A love story, the first in his ‘hate trilogy’ and yet full of some much hope, how can I not. Inspired by true events, Sono explored his own experiences with a cult in his younger years to the extreme through romance, fantasy, lust, bloody massacres, religious shaming, classical music, cults and up skirt photography. Yet it is possibly one of the sweetest stories I’ve ever seen. All very Sono. All very good.
Yu, raised by religious parents, loses his mother at a young age but is urged to find his ‘Maria’, the love of his life. When he is older, his father becomes a priest but strays from the path following a brief but passionate affair with a parishioner. When she leaves, tormented by his own guilt, Yu’s father forces his son to take confession every day to admit to his sins. Having no sins to speak of, the young man decides to commit them to tell his father, leading him into the world of Up skirt photography. After a time, losing a bet with friends for the best photo, he goes out dressed as a woman, Miss Scorpion, and he meets and falls for a girl named Yoko, a self-proclaimed man-hater. In the act of protecting her, they eventually kiss. Only, now Yoko has fallen for Miss Scorpion… and so much more. Oh, and there is a cult with a leader obsessed with Yu, some beautiful speeches about Love and heartache.
Love Exposure truly is an epic piece of filmmaking, with no amount of dedication and heart lost in all its runtime. It’s signature Sono. The strands tie together one by one, the films impressive technicalities and brilliant acting transcend this piece of fiction. On top of all that, the awesome soundtrack made up of underground group Yura Yura Teikoku (some of the coolest music you’ll ever hear), Beethoven, Ravel and Tomohide Harada’s beautiful original scores is a perfect example of Sono’s ear for film. It’s violent but genuine. A story of Hope, the purest love, of Yu and Yoko.
Exte (2007) - it’s a funny and super gross horror movie, one of few that actually makes me gag but I think it did its job rather well.
The Forest of Love (2019) - I actually didn’t like it that much but it is interesting as his only Netflix film and I would be willing to re-watch again and compare it against all of the works I’ve loved.
Bad Film (2012) – It’s not perfect but it took years in the making, as early as 1995, and feels like the renegade of all his features, exploring themes he doesn’t very often. I would like him to revisit this kind of subject again.
The Sion Sono (2016)- Not the short made by him but the documentary about him, shot during his busy year in 2014/15. It's incredibly revealing and is a charming insight into such an interesting man, capturing both the artists and the human.
That’s it, my top fifteen. I hope you find a new favourite here and keep an eye out for the upcoming releases Prisoners of the Ghost Land starring Nicholas Cage. I'm very curious. Interested in more directors to explore, you can check out some of my other recommends list.