Indie hardman opens the tear ducts

Sion Sono is known for edgy films, but his new movie leans on Yasujiro Ozu for inspiration

by Mark Schilling

Sion Sono is Japan’s edgy indie director par excellence, whose internationally acclaimed films expose social ills and challenge taboos in a variety of genres and moods, from the death-trip chills of “Jisatsu Circle” (“Suicide Club,” 2001) to the black-comic laughs of “Ai no Mukidashi” (“Love Exposure,” 2008).

He’s the last director on Earth, in other words, one would expect to make a sob fest, but the story of his latest film, “Chanto Tsutaeru” (“Be Sure to Share”), follows the weeper genre template: An irascible high school soccer coach (Eiji Okuda) falls terminally ill with stomach cancer before he can repair his relationship with his adult son Shiro (Akira), whom he bullied as a boy in the name of suparuta kyoiku (spartan education).

A bluff, cheery editor at the local city magazine, Shiro doesn’t hate his dad for giving him a hard time on the soccer field and at home — he knows the old man’s heart was in the right place. At the same time, he regrets never having had a real conversation with him, so he makes a point of visiting him in the hospital for an hour every day.

Are you misting up yet? If not, Sono, who also wrote the script, has other ways of loosening up those tear ducts, including Shiro’s patient, loving mom (Keiko Takahashi) and girlfriend, Yoko (Ayumi Ito) — both of whom are better than any man deserves. He also has a second-act revelation: His father, Shiro realizes, is not the only one the Grim Reaper is stalking.

Despite the double dose of medical melodrama in the story, Sono avoids or undercuts genre cliches, including the biggest of all, the tear-drenched goodbye scenes. He is not parodying the genre so much as tossing the accumulated generic clutter — from the trembly lips to the syrupy scores — to get at the heart of his father and son’s dilemma. Through embarrassment, neglect or sheer bullheadedness (mainly the father’s) they have left so much unsaid and undone. Now their plan to make up for lost time — a father-son fishing trip — may never happen.

Sono based the story on his relationship with his own university-professor father, who died in 2008, and dedicated the film to him. But the story, Sono told The Japan Times on a break from prepping his next film, “Lords of Chaos,” is not really autobiographical. “My father was like the one in the movie — strict and stubborn,” Sono said. “Also, the part about the father and son not talking very much came from real life. Everything else is fiction. I was never on the soccer team (laughs). It’s easier being cool and objective when you aren’t filming your autobiography — I wanted to have a certain distance.”

Sono has long been something of a directorial chameleon. “Ai no Mukidashi,” a 237-minute semicomic ode to love with a pervert hero and an irreverent take on religion, was utterly different from the solemn essays in alienation he filmed early in his career. With “Chanto Tsutaeru” he has undergone yet another transformation. The film is more traditionally Japanese in style and tone, from its Ozu-esque shot-making to its heartstrings-tugging story, than anything he has done to date.

“I really wanted to make a traditional Japanese film,” Sono explained. “I didn’t have any specific models in mind — just the type of film that was made from the era of Yasujiro Ozu on.”

At the same time, Sono did not want to shoot what he described as “a film just like all the others in the ‘fatal illness’ genre” — so both the father and son end up battling terminal cancer. “In most films about people facing a fatal illness you have two sides,” Sono explained. “The one who is going to die and the ones who are going to survive. The survivors encourage or cry over and say goodbye to the one who is dying, but they’re looking at death from the outside. I didn’t like that sort of film. Instead, I want to make one about two people in basically the same situation — but one will live a little bit longer than the other.”

Playing the son is Akira, a dancer with the megastar pop group Exile and who had minimal acting experience. Instead of overemoting in the style of countless aggrieved and grieving sons in Japanese medical dramas, Akira gives a performance more on the natural, comfortable-in his-own-skin side, which was exactly Sono’s intention. “When actors appear in their first film, they often try too hard,” he commented. “So I told (Akira) to watch out for that — trying too hard doesn’t make for a good performance. That was the only thing I told him: ‘Take it easy.’ “

Also, Akira’s attitude toward his onscreen father — forgiving and understanding rather than resentful and enraged — is not that of most Japanese twentysomethings in this sort of movie relationship. “I don’t know if someone as young as Akira would really be so forgiving,” Sono admits, “but I was looking at the character from my own perspective, not Akira’s. I’m in my 40s now and I didn’t think that writing the character from a young person’s perspective would have a lot of meaning for me. I was making the film based on my own feelings, not a young person’s.”

Much of the on-screen emotion is supplied by Ayumi Ito as that standard-issue character: the hero’s supportive girlfriend. A former child star with the big, round eyes and small bow mouth of a 1920s moga (“modern girl” or flapper), Ito has always been a distinctive presence, if one not always well used. But her heart-stricken reactions to Shiro’s terminal diagnosis and his subsequent devastation have a raw immediacy. “I told her I was going to be pretty strict with her (on the set) so she might end up crying,” Sono said jokingly. “But she’s a real pro.”

“Chanto Tsutaeru” will screen at the Montreal World Film Festival, which runs from Aug. 27 to Sept. 7. Sono, however, will not be present: He is busy with “Lords of Chaos,” a horror/drama about the black-metal music scene in 1990s Norway, starring Jackson Rathbone of hit series “Twilight.” Scheduled to start shooting on location in Norway in mid-September, the film will be entirely in English — a first for the director. “It’s not a Japanese movie at all,” Sono says, though he adds: “It’s not an experiment. For me it’s a continuation of ‘Ai no Mukidashi.’ I’m just doing what I’ve been doing — the fact that I’m shooting it abroad doesn’t matter so much.”

But Sono also wants to keep making films like “Chanto Tsutaeru” — at least once in while. “Films like ‘Ai no Mukidashi’ are more my style,” he explained. “So I can make a film (like ‘Chanto Tsutaeru’) only once every two years or so. (laughs) There are already a lot of films like it, so it’s better for me to make something different.”

Opening nationwide on nearly 80 screens on Aug. 22, “Chanto Tsutaeru” will be Sono’s widest domestic release yet. He plans to make even bigger films — and could well find himself in the position of contemporaries Ryuichi Hiroki (“Yomei Ikkagetsu no Hanayome” (“April Bride”) and Takashi Miike (“Crows Zero II”) — indie directors who have demonstrated their box-office clout with successful commercial releases. “I worry whether I can return (to making indie films) afterwards,” he confesses. “Once you start making those big commercial films, it’s hard to do anything else. That’s what’s happened to Miike — he can’t come back. I want to do it so I can come back and make smaller films again.”