One filmmaker who’s caught my interest in the past year or two is Sion Sono, a darling of film festivals and possibly the most infamous Japanese director since Takashi Miike. While Miike’s output is certainly inventive and controversial, I’ve grown to admire Sono more due to his classier approach and I’m now determined to work my way through his entire filmography.
I absolutely adored Love Exposure. It’s long, startling, grimly funny and is in my top five favourite films. Guilty of Romance is similarly dazzling from a visual standpoint, and is equally off-limits for the prudes and the squeamish. While Guilty of Romance is a work of art and I’m glad I’ve seen it, ironically its strengths make it a film I’m not in a hurry to see again any time soon.
The story is that of a downward spiral into emotional pain and debauchery, so however you look at it this is not a light or humourous tale. There are one or two moments of black comedy but they’re not particularly subtle and I didn’t feel inclined to laugh at subject matter like this. It’s not on quite the same level as Requiem for a Dream in the “so uncomfortable to watch I’ll never watch it again,” stakes but there’s the same problem inherent in telling a story that follows events depicting things going wrong and getting progressively worse.
The movie has two saving graces that allowed me to see it through to the closing credits. Firstly, the performances from the lead acting talent are superb. Makoto Togashi’s portrayal of Mitsuko is utterly compelling, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how Megumi Kagurazaka’s role as Izumi was similarly convincing throughout. Considering her background as a gravure idol, the reasons for her success in her previous line of work are fairly obvious but she has genuine talent as a dramatic actress, and deserves recognition for that.
The other thing that carries this film through unsettling territory that I didn’t want to linger in for too long is the cinematography. Sono makes wonderful use of colour, so even murder scenes and the grimy streets of a Tokyo red light district are, in a strange twisted way, quite beautiful. Both visually and musically it’s stunning and oozes loving care and attention to detail.
Although it’s spectacular from an aesthetic point of view, Guilty of Romance was still a bitter pill for me to swallow. Simply put, I’m uncomfortable seeing innocent people being forced – or forcing themselves – to do unpleasant things. The underlying message of the film for me was that sometimes we feel the need to go to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of happiness but beyond that, I’m not sure what Sono is trying to say here. I expect some might find a misogynistic subtext in the suffering of its female protagonists, but I think Sono is too clever for that. Izumi and Mitsuko are surrounded by men who use and exploit them but their journey into darkness and tragedy actually offers them some temporary freedom and empowerment before it all goes to hell.
The mantra of making the men in their lives pay for the sex is an interesting angle. Both Izumi and Mitsuko enter the sex trade willingly and use the financial payment from their clients as a form of compensation. The issue is also dealt with in Hideaki Anno’s Love & Pop, in which the protagonist goes into enjou kosai (which is not *quite* the same as the full-on prostitution that occurs in this film, admittedly) to earn money.
In Guilty of Romance I don’t recall seeing how Izumi and Mitsuko spend the cash they make, so it’s all about the money but at the same time it isn’t. In Love & Pop the enjou kosai is a means to an end – the lead character is saving up to buy a ring, if I remember correctly – but in Guilty of Romance the money earned from prostitution is more symbolic: the emphasis is instead on escaping from their respective circumstances by finding affection through less conventional means…possibly what the film’s title is alluding to if I’m interpreting it correctly.
The narrative covers Izumi’s and Mitsuko’s respective stories well but there’s a lack of balance when it comes to the point of view of Kazuko, the detective tasked with unravelling the brutal murder that brings Izumi’s and Mitsuko’s friendship to a bloody and tragic conclusion. I think this is where the changes imposed on the international edit come in because I believe it’s considerably shorter than the domestic one, and the footage that tells Kazuko’s story is reputedly what ended up on the cutting room floor.
Because there’s relatively little emphasis on that aspect, Kazuko – and her investigation – are not explored much so their presence feels like an afterthought…which is a shame because I was hoping for some good old murder-mystery to complement the personal and dramatic elements. Although the aspects of the film that I found unpleasant and hard to sit through are integral to its messages and overall style, I suspect that I’d find the original cut more satisfying than the ‘International’ one.
I admire Guilty of Romance, as both a piece of cinema with captivating visuals and acting, and also as a tragic human story. It’s a challenging proposition to physically watch though, and if I were to emotionally disconnect myself from the plight of the characters to make the experience more painless, the impact it’s intended to have would be lessened. If nothing else, I’m now convinced of the talent of Sono and the calibre of actors he chooses to work with, so I can’t wait for the next one. Bring on Himizu, I say.