Since the advent of Ring in 1998, Japanese horror has been largely engulfed by the sub-genre popularly labelled as “J-horror” — with its eerie girls in white, faces hidden in black matted hair. These days the flag is still being vehemently waved by directors such as Takeshi Shimizu and Norio Tsuruta, but other sub-genres of horror are beginning to rise to the surface. It would be true to say that a blend of psycho-sexual horror has been gaining momentum in Japan with apparent links to the works of Japanese novelist Edogawa Rampo, notably adapted in the omnibus project Rampo Noir. While other Japanese directors have already become proponents of the genre, such as Shinya Tsukamoto (Gemini) and Takashi Miike (Box, Big Bang Love: Juvenile A), director Sion Sono (Suicide Club) dips into this with a relentless hand in his film Strange Circus.
It should be said that Strange Circus is very confronting, resulting in a film that may be easy to appreciate but difficult to enjoy. The first major “act” of the film is established through a strange burlesque reality mechanised by the sporadic operations of a circus ferris wheel; seemingly a constant barometer of the sanity of the characters throughout. The first third of the film is the “novel” itself, detailing the story of a young girl, Mitsuko, who becomes the target of sexual and violent abuse by both of her parents. As the narrative switches to the novelist we begin to see hints of connections to the first act, thus establishing the intrigue of the story. Also entering into the story is raving metrosexual, Yuji, a big fan of the novelist intent on discovering the truth about Taeko’s works of “fiction”.
There is nothing subtle about Sion Sono’s approach to his subject matter. While many scenes involve symbolism, the director would rather beat you around the head with them than tentatively hint at anything. Seeing a young girl walk down a corridor with blood dripping down the walls is hardly a mise en scène that you would need to contemplate for very long. Still, the direction is quite solid, particularly drawing you in to Mitsuko’s viewpoint — creating an uncomfortable empathy between you and the victimisations of her character.
The characters within the story are one of the film’s strongest points, particularly that of Yuji. Issei Ishida provides us with a rare portrayal of a character both menacing and so utterly fragile. Masumi Miyazaki’s tortured Taeko is likewise an impressive realisation of a character whose confident demeanour is teetering on collapse.
Strange Circus is not a film for a lot of people. It would be safe to say that such a film wouldn’t get made in the West. However, for its subject and relentless confrontational nature, the film is not as dark as one would expect. After the first act, the film’s overt excesses seem to naturally couple with a subtle tongue-in-cheek; the kind one would expect from Takashi Miike. Beyond that there is not much other mastery evident here. As the mysteries peel away for the final act, some seem to result in disappointment and anticlimax. Still, the characters remain bold and interesting but, unfortunately, the film’s sensation isn’t often enough matched by substance.