“Gnash your teeth hard, let’s go!”: Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

FILM, Film Festivals
img_whydontyouplayinhellA lust for blood and celluloid collide in Sion Sono’s meta splatter yakuza comedy.

Japanese provocateur Sion Sono’s latest absurdist outing Why Don’t You Play in Hell? presents a slyly satirical comment on genre cinema and the wider tapestry of Japanese cinematic culture. Known for deconstructing and inverting genres—such as with the serial killer thriller Cold Fish in 2010—Sono turns his gaze simultaneously to yakuza eiga (yakuza films) and to films about filmmaking, long a staple in southeast Asian cinema.

The film begins (pre-title roll) with a music video advertisement for dental hygiene involving a perplexing song and dance routine by a young girl in a white dress—which literally and figuratively echoes throughout the film—before cutting to a narrated filmmaking action sequence by Hirata Don, the head of an avowedly “crazy” teen filmmaking collective known as The Fuck Bombers. Thus we are introduced early to the two main story strands which wend close together at times, but don’t join in force until the final act—and what a joining it is! The future wannabe actress in the music video is Mitsuko, daughter of the Muto yakuza head, with whom Ikegami Jun, the eventual leader of the warring Kitagawa yakuza clan, develops an obsession, thereby complicating the conflict between the two houses. Meanwhile, our aspiring filmmaker Hirata, whose stated goal is to make only one perfect film—which seemingly requires live recording of actual violent conflict to satisfy his expectations regarding ‘perfection’—drags The Fuck Bombers through ten years of seemingly pointless cinematic ‘preparation’, until an elongated series of coincidences places them in the midst of a gang war, thus providing him with the perfect directorial opportunity.

Taking its time to get going, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? maintains enough bizarre interest to keep you keyed in while the pace and action slowly build until about 45 minutes from the end, when Sono suddenly fuck bombs any sense of reasonableness and +10s the shit out of all the heretofore ‘slightly quirky’ tendencies shown by almost every character. The final act is such a ludicrously joyous carnival of splatter-com as to seem a purposeful obfuscation of the commentary and references sewn throughout. Not the least of which is the fact that the two warring yakuza clans each represent the two major schools of yakuza film: 1) the ‘ninkyo eiga’ in which yakuza are likened to samurai, wearing traditional kimono and ensconced in honour (a key star of these films, Ken Takakura, is directly referenced in the script); and 2) the ‘jitsuroku eiga’ which were shot documentary style with handheld cameras (one of The Fuck Bombers specialises in shooting with a hand-held camera) and portrays yakuza as violent Mafioso types more interested in power and financial gain than any admirable code of ethics. There is even a sequence containing a soliloquy from one of family heads, likening the two faction’s approaches to the camera/battle as realist versus fantasist, proclaiming “Realism will lose!” This is an amusing meta-critique of cinematic style—both in general and of that specifically being evinced by The Fuck Bombers in the scene and by Sono and co. themselves—while also being in direct opposition to the signifiers of the school of yakuza cinema each family represents. This is some heady concoction to throw into a mad half hour flurry of spraying blood and maniacal laughter.

In some facets I was reminded of Pang Ho-Cheung’s 2012 Hong Kong-based comedy Vulgaria, whose premise has a film crew co-opting funding from gangsters due to which much bizarre humorous fallout occurs. But where Pang’s effort felt like it was working the absurdist angle hard for little gain, Sono, like Takashi Miike, really gets what works for his audience: outlandish, viscera soaked gallows humour which provokes in its audacity and seeming lack of interest in propriety, while exploring mankind’s darker inclinations by making light of their extremes. And damn if Why Don’t You Play in Hell? isn’t funny as all hell. The ridiculousness of The Fuck Bombers’ goals normalised against the bizarre turns of the yakuza conflict is perfectly written and comes off exceedingly well. You should instantly have a sense if this is not at all your thing, but I’d hope Sono fans will not be disappointed, and I’d call this a must for all Incredibly Strange devotees.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono, Japan, 2013)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Jacob Powell has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2005. He writes freelance on cinema and other topics both online and occasionally in print. He also works as an Auckland-based university librarian specialising in digital AV media and research collections.