Film / Reviews

Sion Sono is back with buckets of blood and a three-faced heroine in 'Tag'

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Sion Sono is a director of extremes — including an extreme dislike of being categorized. Just when you thought you had him pegged as a maker of violent black comedies with classical music scores, such as “Ai no Mukidashi”(“Love Exposure”), he turns out heartfelt, albeit still violent, dramas with nuclear disaster themes, such as “Himizu” and “Kibo no Kuni” (“The Land of Hope”).

“Real Onigokko” (“Tag”) is his latest, and the most bizarre attempt to subvert whatever stereotypes still exist about a so-called Sono film. It looks to be the latest entry in a series of adaptations about a deadly game of “tag” played with unwilling participants, based on Yusuke Yamada’s 2001 novel set in a dystopian future society. The novel inspired a hit 2008 movie adaptation, which generated four sequels as well as a TV mini-series.

Sono’s film, however, is neither a sequel nor a spin-off; his original script that has nothing to do with the novel, save for the title. (He claims not to have read it prior to the start of filming.) The “tag” element survives — the film is essentially an 85-minute chase sequence — but the “game” being played defies all logic, except that of a nightmare. And yet it made good, scary sense to the non-rational side of my admittedly scrambled brain.

Tag (Real Onigokko)
Run Time 85 mins
Language Japanese
Opens July 11

Its surreal mix of dream (if it is indeed a dream) and reality is not new: Buster Keaton was doing it in “Sherlock Jr.” back in 1924. Neither is the casting of three different actresses as the heroine: Luis Bunuel used a similar tactic in his surreal 1977 film “That Obscure Object of Desire.” But Sono takes these elements to — let’s use that word again — extremes.

The film goes beyond standard run-for-your life thrills to a mind-bending questioning of identity. Is your precious ego an illusion? This is Buddhism 101, but presented in a mad Sono-esque way, punctuated with blood sprays and rays of energizing light.

The story is rife with surprises, making a spoiler-free plot summary almost impossible. It begins with a “hafu” (biracial) teen, Mitsuko (Reina Triendl), riding in a bus with 40 female classmates, two of whom tease her for being a “foreigner.” When she bends down to pick up a pen a mysterious force metes out a strange and fatal justice. Mitsuko survives and runs for her life.

She ends up back in high school, the previous carnage seemingly an illusion. Her straight-talking friend Aki (Yuki Sakai) tries to ease her panicked mind, pledging to never abandon her. But Mitsuko, Aki and their pals Jun (Maryjun Takahashi) and Mutsuko (Sayaka Isoyama) soon find themselves escaping from merciless killers. What sort of game is this?

Answers arrive in due course, but first Mitsuko morphs into the adult Keiko (Mariko Shinoda), whose so-called friends try to force her to marry a terrifying groom. Then Keiko transforms into Izumi (Erina Mano), a runner in a race, with hundreds of cheering spectators on the sidelines. But, once again killers appear who are horrific in more than the usual human ways.

There is a method behind this madness — or rather a cosmology in which Mitsuko/Keiko/Izumi is an active agent, not just a harried victim. But she is also Alice in a malevolent, enigmatic Wonderland.

Significantly, nearly all the beings the heroines encounter in this Wonderland are female. Also, interestingly, Mitsuko is the rare biracial heroine in a Japanese film. But the deeper meaning of these casting choices is known only to Sono himself.

All I know is that Triendl, whose trademark as an in-demand model is her sweet, innocent smile, runs, gibbers and cries as though Satan himself is after her. It’s an inspired performance. I can already see myself racing her desperately in my dreams, with the devil taking the hindmost — and no credit crawl in sight.

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