With Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and Tokyo Tribe, director Sion Sono has shifted into a space where he makes the films that he genuinely wants to be making. There’s a particularly relaxed sense to his two latest works, which sits in contrast to the frantic pace with which they were released (in Australia, they both appeared at the Japanese Film Festival late last year and are now both available on DVD via Madman Films). Sono doesn’t have any plans of slowing down, though, he told us in this interview that he sees his cinematic output “like songs”. With at least two films due out in 2015 in Japan this year, Sono’s fervour for his work only seems to be increasing.
As one of the giants of modern cinema in Japan, Sono has a lot to say in this interview about the vicissitudes of the country’s cinematic sphere; especially considering how much it has changed. Sono is a rare example of a director who has been working in Japan’s unsteady film landscape for three decades. His ability to adapt to this shifting creative landscape has produced some of the country’s most memorable films. From navigating Japan’s relationship with disasters in Himizu and The Land of Hope, or looking at its more imaginative and shocking side in Love Exposure and Suicide Club – Sono remains one of the most inspired and hard-working directors in Japan. Last month, I caught up with the director to discuss his output, his most recent films, and his ambitions in the near future.
Note: The following interview was conducted with the assistance of an interpreter, Don Brown. Many thanks to him and Madman Films for making this interview possible.
After being active for two and a half decades, have you felt the place of Japanese cinema has changed in the way it’s been received on a global level – especially in your own work? Your latest two films have been received fairly well worldwide. They received a wide distribution and could be amongst your most successful releases. How has your interaction with film changed in the last twenty years?
I’m very happy with the way things have been going with my own films in terms of the way they’ve been received overseas. In terms of my personal motivation, I’m less interested in shooting films in Japan than shooting overseas – that’s been a goal of mine for quite a long time, so that’s something that I’m working towards.
With Suicide Circle and Noriko’s Dinner Table, you mentioned you were interested in making a trilogy, however, at the time that was too difficult. Do you feel like things are any more achievable now that you’re more established as a filmmaker? Why Don’t You Play in Hell? came from a 15-year-old screenplay (even Himizu was a 10-year-old screenplay by the time it started filming). Do you feel like you’re able to realise films you weren’t able to 15 years ago now?
I guess the thing that’s changed the most is I have more producers around me now to back me up – I didn’t have that when I was making those films in the past so it wasn’t possible to do the sort of things that I wanted to do. Now I have that backup, I have that position, and I have a lot more freedom in that sense.
You’ve said in the past that the ero guro genre has been influential in your approach to filmmaking, but do you feel that those sort of initial influences remain major in your recent work or now – with more producers around you – do you feel less compelled to pursue a lot of those earlier interests?
I think around the time of Suicide Club – my aim of making that was to kind of restart my career, so I decided to kind of introduce those kind of ero guro elements as a sort of bad taste and making something shocking as a way of achieving that restart. Now my career is much more settled and stable so I don’t feel a need so much to concentrate on those shocking elements, it doesn’t feel as necessary.
Of course, before Suicide Club I made a lot of independent films and they didn’t really have anything to do with the whole ero guro thing; it was much more a natural artistic expression I wanted to make. But when Suicide Club came around and I wanted to make that restart, I made a big decision to do shocking things. I guess it’s like, do something like Kiss – the rock band Kiss – wearing very flashy make-up and spitting fire out of my mouth. That was kind of the feeling behind Suicide Club. The films I made before that you could say were more acoustic as opposed to the flashy rock of Suicide Club, if that metaphor makes sense.
Of course, it seems really appropriate, actually. In some of your later films, there’s another kind of maturing period, specifically with The Land of Hope and Himizu – both explicitly concerned with the idea of Japan as a disaster country. You said that people tried to “dissuade [you] from going to film there at the time”, but that you’re now “glad” to “have some kind of record now” in another interview. Do you feel an obligation as a filmmaker to create a record in a time of disaster?
It’s not something that I constantly feel is necessary in my work. I don’t look at it – recording those sort of things – as a task of obligation. It’s more of a natural desire of mine. So I don’t look at it as part of my job, it’s something that comes out naturally in my work. That whole “portraying Japanese society focusing on social issues”– that’s not something I have in the front of my mind when I’m making these films.
More recently, with Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and Tokyo Tribe, I know there was a year difference in their release. In Australia at least, they were often screening at the same festival. I was wondering how you view the idea of output, because that rate isn’t present in the works of many of your contemporaries, and whether you intend for there to be a connection between films you release in quick succession?
In terms of the connection between Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and Tokyo Tribe… with Himizu and The Land of Hope, of course they were depicting a very dark reality, but it’s not the case of what I really wanted to make, not what I personally wanted to achieve. It’s just how those films worked out. I wanted to switch from that and make something that was more, not controversial, but something that could be enjoyed as entertainment; both for my own sake and for the audience’s as well.
In terms of my rate of output in recent years, this is my own personal way of thinking about it, but I look at movies like songs. With an album you have about twelve songs, so I figure, why not have twelve films in a year like twelve songs in an album? With an album, of course you get some good songs and some bad songs, but I think by making so many there’s going to be something good that comes out of it, and I think that’s really the way that films should be.
Have you encountered any troubles with licensing and releasing films so close together with certain publishers?
Each of these films has been made for, not the same company, but different ones. From all of these individual companies’ points of view, that isn’t a problem. Also in terms of the scale of production, these films that I’m making aren’t that large and that’s fairly standard now for Japanese films; it’s not really possible to make films on a large scale and take a long time completing them. There’s a lot of very low budgets and not a lot of time to make these films, so I’m taking that status and using it to my own advantage, being able to make that many films cheaply and in a very short space of time. It usually takes about a month to shoot, there’s not a lot of budget available so there’s a lot of restrictions. That whole way of thinking, of making one film a year, is really something that doesn’t apply to Japanese filmmaking so much – at least, anymore. It’s more like making TV shows in terms of the turnover of production.
To finish up, I wanted to know what you’re interested in: in terms of your contemporaries, the way you interact with cinema as a whole, who are the filmmakers – in or outside of Japan – that inspire and provoke you on a day-to-day basis, and how much has that changed since, say, ten years ago?
Some of the filmmakers that influence me remain unchanged. Of course, my favourite is and has always been Rainer Werner Fassbinder, so in terms of me being prolific, that’s maybe my own way of imitating Fassbinder in a sense. In terms of Japan, another that has remained unchanged has been Kinji Fukasaku. Of course, the director of the Battles Without Honour and Humanity series and many other films. He’s been a rather symbolic presence to me in terms of my work. Also just a fact, because I’m so busy, I don’t really have much time to watch films recently, so rather than being influenced by certain filmmakers I guess – in terms of recent influences; they are coming more from art and music. I’ve got a lot of friends working in the whole art and music scenes in Japan. One example is a group called Chimpom: they’re a rather avant-garde art collective who do these sort of challenging, provocative art projects. They’ve made documentaries, they’ve gone to Thailand. Next month, I’ll be making a documentary with Chimpom about Fukushima. There’s a scoop for you.
That sounds incredible! Thanks for the interview.
Thank you very much.