Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell is, I think, a little like modern art – staring at it, you’re pretty sure you’re missing the point. Not that Sono’s work has necessarily been thematically deep to date, but it’s hard to look at a film about a filmmaker making a film without trying to read into it a little industry commenatary. The problem is, if you are, it’s difficult to work out what the hell Sono is trying to say.
Widely known for his Suicide Club duology (Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table), Sono layers narrative to frenetic effect in this Gonzo-esque film (Gonzo being a term regarding the creation of something without claiming to be objective and usually involving the creator as part of the story, most often in first person narrative), bringing it all together in an almost satirical finale involving a great deal of blood and body parts. Highschool filmmaker group, the Fuck Bombers (and fuck knows why they named themselves that but lets move on), happen upon a gang fight. Instead of calling the police like any decent citizen, they talent scout and pretty quickly their enthusiasm for genre filmmaking has one of the lead toughs convinced that they’re going to make the greatest film ever and that he is their perfect lead tough.
Meanwhile, yakuza boss Muto (the always awesome Jun Kunimura, Outrage) and his gang are engaged in what appears to be a long-standing war with a rival group. Gang members go to his home expecting to find him there, only to be slaughtered almost to a man by his knife wielding wife (comedian Tomochiko), who promptly gets herself arrested and sent to jail for a 10 year stint. As a by-product of this, their daughter Michiko’s (Fumi Nikaido, Goemon) TV ad for toothpaste gets pulled from broadcast.
Almost 10 years later the filmmakers, led by the slightly megalomaniac Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa), are still talking about making their film but have not in fact done anything but talk about it, a fact that has not escaped the notice of their star, played with delightful gravitas by none other than Tak Sakaguchi in a Bruce Lee onesie. Ikegami (Shinichi Tsutsumi, Monday) is running the rival group like it’s still the Edo period, and Muto has lied to his soon-to-be-out-on-parole wife about the successful movie career of Michiko. He now has 10 days to make a film staring his little girl, who has run away from her daddy’s men in order to find her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend and feed him broken glass (not metaphorically).
When one of Muto’s men suggests they kill two birds with one stone, so to speak – attack Ikegami and make a film at the same time – it apparently sounds like a brilliant plan. All they need is someone to direct. In a roundabout way involving Michiko’s hapless new boyfriend Koji (Gen Hoshino), a prayer box and some pretty impressive projectile vomiting, the Fuck Bombers and their Bruce Lee-alike are back in the picture, both literally and figuratively. And now they have both the funding for all the equipment they’ll need and a completely free cast of realistic extras (who it has to be noted are utterly hilarious and almost steal the show).
You can probably now see why I said when I started that it’s a little like looking at modern art. All these threads make sense on their own. They are in fact fairly classic in terms of narrative and might have made a decent drama separately, and it’s not that their intersection causes any one thread to lose its coherency or that they end up a tangled knot in the middle, but this film is just so incredibly manic in its execution that the uberviolence engaged to execute it becomes the point. Which is possibly they point? If the film has one. Hirata’s grand, unrealised dreams of making a masterpiece could be a reflection of the director’s youthful ambitions (Sono scripted this film almost 17 years ago), and the bloodbath it takes to realise them could either be a comment on the trauma of actually trying to get a film made in Japan or just on what it takes to achieve your own passionate goals, but it’s a tenuous thread at best. Hirata spends 10 years in no way applying himself towards his goals, sacrifices every single player in order to escape with minor wounds and his film-reels, laughing madly the whole way, and then in the end, takes all the accolades.
It feels wrong, somehow, offensive, as if all that sacrifice and death only serves to feed the director’s ego and all those walking wounded are only a means to an end, but Sono’s commentary doesn’t extend far enough to make a judgement on whether he’s talking about himself specifically or all filmmakers in general. And whereas a director like Sabu’s masterful juggling of disparate narrative threads and desperate characters comes together in some meaningful and entertaining way, this feels self-indulgent and immature.
But, then again, maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point was to just have fun. Why Don’t You Play in Hell is a crazy, sometimes hilarious, sometimes gross, over-the-top romp, not quite comedy of errors but close. It’s a little bit Tarantino, a little bit Sushi Typhoon, and it looks pretty damn good while doing it (except for the projectile vomiting). If that’s your thing, welcome to celluloid heaven. For everyone else, maybe the midnight sessions at your local film festival aren’t the kinds of sessions you tend to frequent anyway.