Sion Sono is currently Japan's finest cinematic bad boy. His excruciating pace of filming and his exuberant style may be somewhat reminiscent of Takashi Miike, but throughout the years Sono crafted a unique style that's very much his own. Why Don't You Play In Hell? [Jigoku de Naze Warui] is his latest feature film and gives us a small glimpse of Sono's motivations for becoming a director, amidst one of the most insane blood baths in recent years.
Sono (Kimyo na Sakasu, Koi no Tsumi, Love Exposure, Ekusute, Tsumetai Nettaigyo) wrote the script for Why Don't You Play In Hell? almost 20 years ago, which goes a long way in explaining the dreams and motivations of Hirata, an aspiring director who's desperately searching for a masterpiece to amaze the world. In this character lies a lot of Sono's former self, though that's probably where any ties with reality start to fade.
Many critics have been keen to highlight some similarities between Kill Bill and Why Don't You Play In Hell?'s finale, but Sono has been equally eager to point out that these are merely coincidental and that the appearance of Bruce Lee's yellow suit (probably the most eye-popping and most talked about link) is an actual Bruce Lee reference, not an ode to Tarantino. While you could find more ties to Tarantino's martial arts geekfest, I feel more comfortable seeing Why Don't You Play In Hell?'s film's sprawling finale as an example of how it should be done rather than an ode to mediocrity.
The story of Why Don't You Play In Hell? is pretty manga-esque. It follows the escapades of a young director (Hirata) looking for a subject to film. When, by chance, he ends up in the middle of a Yakuza gang war, he is confident that he was put on this earth to document the showdown between the two clans. Surprisingly both Yakuza clans are okay with Hirata filming everything, and so they start preparing for their final battle.
On the visual side of things, this film is vintage Sono. An agile camera races through the sets, there's an arsenal of little visual tricks to keep things interesting and from time to time Sono slows down just enough to pick and frame a superb shot. It doesn't always look as coherent as I would've liked, but the pacing is snappy, there's plenty to see and the style goes well with the happy-go-lucky atmosphere of the film.
The soundtrack too is typical Sono fare. He doesn't shy away from bombast and mixes an eclectic selection of tracks (ranging from classical to regular film music) to create a bold yet light-hearted atmosphere. The soundtrack is never too serious and mainly used to brighten the mood, but it is effective and it takes center stage on more than one occasion. Pretty much what I've come to expect from a Sono soundtrack.
Fumi Nikaido (from Sono's own Himizu) is given room to flourish. Sono is great in drawing that extra something from his actors and even though the characters in this film are pretty big caricatures the cast does manage to add some humanity to the chaos. Jun Kunimura and Shin'ichi Tsutsumi shine as the Yakuza bosses while Tak Sakaguchi probably has the funniest role in the film, playing a mix between himself and a bad Bruce Lee imitator.
It's not that Why Don't You Play In Hell? is particularly tame or boring during the first 90 minutes (there are plenty of memorable scenes), it's just that it doesn't really rise above Sono's other films. It's great fun mind, a project ripe with juvenile influences yet nourished and expanded on by a veteran director. But then Sono goes in overdrive, the entire 20-minute finale is an over-the-top feast of blood, action and comedy that stands as one of the most entertaining and insanely cool things he's done so far. It's a dazzling experience that left me gasping for air, a lesson in letting go and embracing the lack of limitations that is known as the magical world of cinema.
Watching Why Don't You Play In Hell? will tell you a few things about Sono's dreams and aspirations as a young director. It may sound self-indulgent, but looking at the pleasantly twisted chunk of entertainment that resulted from it you can hardly hold it against him. It's no doubt one of the least serious films Sono has made so far, but there's so much vigor and energy here that only the most hardened stiffs would mind. Sono reaffirms his position as one of the top Japanese directors of this current generation and with a new film coming up he certainly isn't showing any signs of slowing down.