Sion Sono serves up some blood-sucking fun in ‘Tokyo Vampire Hotel’

by

Special To The Japan Times

Vampires have been a staple of Western pop culture since Bram Stoker published his best-selling novel “Dracula” in 1897. The hit “Twilight” series of films (2008-12) made the monsters hot again as millions of teens swooned to the romance of Bella (Kristen Stewart) and ageless vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson).

Naturally, Japan’s entertainment industry has come up with its own version of vampires, just it has with many other Western pop-culture phenomena.

But the nine-episode vampire series Amazon Japan announced last April, which its Amazon Prime service starts streaming on June 16, is utterly unlike “Twilight.” The story: A vampire clan holes up in an impregnable hotel, with trapped humans as a food source, as civilization collapses outside its doors.

A terrified young woman named Manami (Ami Tomite) ends up inside the hotel, though she finds a defender in the mysterious K (the singularly named Kaho) and her cohorts, vampires from a rival clan. A Japanese version of Edward is nowhere in sight.

The series’ creator — and, for all but two episodes, scriptwriter and director — is Sion Sono. Since his breakout hit, the 2001 shocker “Suicide Club,” veteran maverick Sono has moved from the indie fringes to red carpet royalty, while winning fans abroad for such films as “Love Exposure” (2009), “Tokyo Tribe” (2014) and “Tag” (2015).

Elements from these and other Sono films can be found in “Tokyo Vampire Hotel,” from the Christian imagery in the set designs and the classical music on the soundtrack (“Love Exposure”) to the battling clans (“Tokyo Tribe”) and full-bore chase scenes (“Tag”), with Manami running frantically through the Tokyo streets with vampires in close pursuit.

Speaking to The Japan Times in a Daikayama recording studio, the 55-year-old Sono — tired from a long day of media interviews — says the series “is not a big change from my movies.”

“But of course a drama series is a drama series, so it’s a little different,” he adds. “You can have detail that you can’t get so easily in film.”

Sono has scripted and directed series before, including the six-part comedy-fantasy series “The Virgin Psychics” (“Minna! Esupa da Yo!”) which TV Tokyo broadcast in 2013.

“Each episode of that show was a stand-alone, so it was easy to write,” he says. “But (‘Tokyo Vampire Hotel’) has a storyline that continues all the way through — that was really tough. On the plus side, I had more freedom.

“There are a lot of things you can’t do on television, but (with this series) it’s totally different. On (‘The Virgin Psychics’) I got yelled at a lot by the TV network. Not so with Amazon — they weren’t very strict with their rules.”

Amazon also gave Sono a free hand with casting. He decided to cast Kaho, who had worked with him on the “Virgin Psychics” series but had never done action, as the hard-charging vampire K.

“I thought it would be boring to do the same kind of thing with her she had always done,” he says. “I wanted to show her in a different light.”

The idea for the series was Sono’s, though he collaborated with Tomohiro Kubo and Daisuke Matsuo, who each wrote a script for and directed one episode. The show, Sono admits, is not a surefire success in this country.

“Vampires are not so popular in Japan,” he explains. “The ‘Twilight’ films were flops here and American vampire TV series all failed in Japan. So, basically, vampires don’t work, but I want to do (the series) anyway.”

Sono’s fascination with vampires goes back to his childhood, when he became a fan of the horror films of Hammer Film Productions, starting with the 1958 cult classic “Dracula” starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

“I wasn’t interested in Japanese ghosts and I never much liked J-horror,” he adds. Why vampires specifically? “They’re really sexy,” Sono says, smiling for the first time. “They’re unlike other monsters that way.”

However, he denies that his heavy vampire viewing influenced “Tokyo Vampire Hotel.”

“I didn’t want images from all the (vampire) films I’d seen overlapping with (the series),” he says. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was imitating.”

While he allowed his imagination to run free, the filmmaker insisted on a certain authenticity. Since vampires originally came from Romania, he reasoned, he had to shoot there, and Amazon agreed. The series features Bran Castle (commonly known as Dracula’s Castle), the Salina Turda salt mines and other spots in Transylvania, where Sono and his crew filmed for five days. “If we didn’t film in Romania, the series wouldn’t have any power,” Sono says. “I had to do it. Just shooting in Tokyo would have been no good.”

The seeds for the unusual shoot were planted when Sono flew to Romania last May for a retrospective of his films at the Transilvania International Film Festival (which uses the local spelling for the region in its name).

“I went to Dracula’s Castle and other places and knew I wanted to film there. So the locations came first,” he says. “All the places I saw ended up in the script.”

The Romanian shoot, as well as the elaborate hotel set (constructed in Tokyo), would have been impossible on a typical TV budget, Sono admits.

“We could do it because it was Amazon Prime. It really could have been a film, but since it’s based on an original story it would have been hard to raise the money. But if you do a drama series with Amazon Prime, you get plenty of money to create a set like that.”

His script, he insists, was also faithful to Romanian history, at least in outline.

“There was a (Matthias) Corvinus who actually fought with Dracula (aka Vlad the Impaler),” he says. “Corvinus imprisoned Dracula and shut him up underground. So I took a hint from that and had the Dracula clan shut up underground in the series. With that as a backdrop, I constructed my story.

“But the real Dracula was only a prisoner for three years. In the series the Dracula clan is kept underground forever.”

And on that thought, Sono smiles again.

“Tokyo Vampire Hotel” begins streaming via Amazon Prime Video on June 16 at www.amazon.co.jp/primevideo.