/

‘Sunny/32’: If idol-pop and ‘Saw’ were to have a baby, this may be it

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Visitors to Japan are often surprised by the visual and aural clutter they encounter in what they might know as the land of Zen. Instead of minimalist rock gardens, Japanese cities assault the senses with bright lights, ads and loudspeaker noise. This overload extends to other areas: from stocked-to-the-rafters discount stores (Don Quijote) to movies with tons of characters and reams of dialogue (“Shin Godzilla”).

Kazuya Shiraishi’s “Sunny/32” is billed as an “idol movie” as it stars NGT48 member Rie Kitahara as a naive teacher. But it’s more of a cinematic Don Quijote, cramming in a stalking, kidnapping and crazed cult, as well as murders both shocking and bizarre. And if you have a fetish for hog-tied women in frilly pink dresses, you’ve come to the right movie.

The prolific Shiraishi has been making one dark, stylish film after another, usually set in society’s lower depths, since his critical and commercial breakthrough with “The Devil’s Path,” a crime drama from 2013 that lives up to its sulfurous title.

Sunny/32
Rating
Run Time 110 mins
Language JAPANESE

For “Sunny/32” he has brought back Pierre Taki and Lily Franky (the two main demons in “The Devil’s Path”) as Kashiwabara and Oda, middle-aged men obsessed with a 14-year-old girl who murdered a classmate soon after posing with her in a photo. A decade later, the killer, nicknamed Sunny, is free and the subject of online adoration by the aforementioned cult.

As the film begins, Akari (Kitahara) narrowly escapes the clutches of a stalker but is snatched by Kashiwabara and Oda and spirited away to a remote cabin half-buried in the snow. There they “celebrate” Akari’s 24th birthday, referring to her as “Sunny.” Her response is to bite the bigger kidnapper’s hand. He beats her brutally and sadly says “This Sunny is no good.”

Just as the film seems to be devolving into a cross between an idol-pop music video and “Saw,” it takes a stranger turn. The men invite other cultists, none of whom are models of sanity, to the cabin for a paid session with Sunny.

Terror then gives way to farce. A drone appears over the cabin, operated by a nerdy computer whiz who’s tracking Sunny’s whereabouts. After the cultists move Sunny to an abandoned beach house, they stumble upon a frisky young couple — and both the computer whiz and the couple join the commotion, adding to the film’s already high oddness quotient.

As the helpless and abused Akari/Sunny, Kitahara initially seems the opposite of a cute-but-in-control idol, with male fans in her thrall. But Scheherazade-like, she figures out how to fascinate her captors, while demonstrating an impressive command of the digital world. Also, when another “Sunny” appears online and accuses her of being a fake, she keeps her cool, even as the bodies fall around her.

The film’s critique of the internet’s underside is hardly new, while its outrages are familiar from similarly bizarre outings by Takashi Miike and Sion Sono. But Shiraishi has his own brand of black comedy that hinges less on sick gags and more on his characters’ dualities — exemplified here by Akari’s sudden dropping of her nice-girl persona.

Finally, for all its nastiness and excess, “Sunny/32” becomes a twisted paean to female resilience and power. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has famously called for a society in which Japanese women can shine — and in a strange way, Sunny does.