Even though Sono's Jisatsu Sakuru was the first film to introduce the man to a broad international audience, Strange Circus [Kimyo na Sakasu] marks Sion Sono's first true flash of genius. Strange Circus is the film that brings all of Sono's usual traits together and combines them into a hauntingly perverse yet stunning masterpiece. It's definitely not for the squeamish or the easily offended, while regular horror junkies should take heed that this isn't just your run of the mill horror fix.
It took Sion Sono (Koi no Tsumi, Love Exposure, Ekusute, Himizu, Tsumetai Nettaigyo) a while get up to speed. Even though the first couple of films he directed were quite unique and experimental, they were also wildly uneven and burdened by low budgets. It wasn't until Sono released Jitatsu Sakura that his trademark style would start to unearth itself. Strange Circus is an improvement on that film on just about every level and for me it marks the real start of Sono's career.
The plot of Strange Circus is pretty damn twisted. We are introduced to Mitsuko, a 12 year old girl who suffers heavy mental and sexual abuse from her father. She is forced to watch her parents have sex and not long after Mitsuko's dad starts actively abusing his daughter. Once Mitsuko's mother finds out about their hidden relationship, she too turns against Mitsuko and turns her life into an even bigger hell. Until one fatal day when a fight between Mitsuko and her mother gets out of hand and Mitsuko accidentally pushes her down the stairs.
Years later, Mitsuko has found solace in writing. As Taeko (her writing moniker), Mitsuko's books sell really well, though nobody realizes just how much of her writing is actually autobiographical. Taeko is seen as a recluse, hiding from the real world and only talking with her publishers directly. When Yuji joins Taeko's publishing company, he is immediately smitten by her writing and asks to be coupled to Taeko.
Strange Circus is one of Sono's most visually intense films. Strong colors and meticulous camera work complement the rich and colorful settings. Even though there is a rather elaborate circus analogy driving the film, Sono doesn't limit himself to these scenes to showcase some pretty absurd imagery. The indoor scenes are clearly where Sono excels, the outdoor scenes can look a bit drab in comparison, but overall Strange Circus is a stunning film to behold.
The soundtrack is typical Sono fare. A more timid score is accompanied by instantly recognizable musical themes that are pulled completely out of context to add to the madness. It's a fun and quirky soundtrack, definitely giving the film some extra personality, though its quirkiness may sometimes interfere with the baseline atmosphere of the film. Then again, Sono's films feed on these kind of discrepancies.
Rie Kuwana and Masumi Miyazaki take on the female lead roles. Sono typically asks a lot from them (especially from the younger Rie Kuwana), but they manage remarkably well. Hiroshi Oguchi shines as Mitsuko's dad, a creepy and eerie characters who's both vile and unscrupulous. Issei Ishida (as Yuji) is the least talented of the bunch, but his appearance alone makes up for what he lacks in acting talent.
While the first hour is reserved for exploring Mitsuko's twisted background story from up close, the final 30 minutes Sono spends on serving a couple of elaborate plot twists. If you're into that kind of thing I must admit that they are pretty effective, but in the end I felt they contributed little to the overall impact of the film. Strange Circus has other strengths that easily outweigh the film's narrative, though Sono still manages a good balance during the film's finale.
Strange Circus is a stellar film that still counts as one of Sono's absolute best efforts to date. The subject matter is rather risqué though and Sono's approach is far from subtle. While this is definitely a huge part of the film's appeal, it will also deter a lot of people expecting a different kind of film. But if you think you can handle the subject matter, this is definitely a film worth checking out.