Sono Sion: The Dark Poet

By Maggie Lee

sono-sion.jpgSono Sion

A rare original amidst a sea of adaptation and imitation, Sono Sion has carved a strangely imaginative cinematic path

"The difference between the amateur and the professional [in filmmaking] is like that between love and prostitution… I want to keep both the passion of the amateur and the professionalism of the prostitute in equilibrium in my projects.” – Sono Sion, Ore to Eiga (Me and Film)

Though his name is not unheard-of in film circles, and most of his works have been quietly showcased at international festivals, Sono Sion has somehow never made an impact like his contemporary Kore-eda Hirakazu, or the younger Yamashita Nobuhiro, in spite of a distinctive vision and prolific output.

Born in Aichi prefecture in 1961, Sono was a published poet at 17, but got his film break through connections with the PIA film festival. Shorts Ore wa Sono Sion da!(1985) and Otoko no hanamichi (1987) were both in competition, winning the Grand Prize. With a PIA fellowship, he made debut feature Bicycle Sighs (1990). A masterpiece of visual composition and existential l’ennui, his next film, The Room (1992) traveled to almost 50 festivals.

into-a-dream-sono-sion.jpgInto A Dream, 2005

Sono Sion radically changed course in his career from the previous independent experimental films to openly mainstream fare like Jisatsu saakuru (Suicide Club) (2002) or Kikyuu kurabu, sonogo (2006), but his thematic diversity and idiosyncrasy, and tendency to go off on tangents, make him both refreshing and frustratingly hard to pin down. In an industry where Japanese directors habitually opt for the safe bet of manga and bestseller adaptations, Sono is one of the very few who always writes his own screenplays, and sometimes even the music and lyrics.

David Lynch, whom Sono admires, is perhaps a good Western equivalent to characterize his plumbing of the troubled psyche and the dark underbelly of Japan’s squeaky-clean social surfaces. He has a nihilistic vision, and obsessive fascination with death and suicidal impulses. As with Lynch, there are overlapping narratives, and parallel or converging worlds, between reality and fiction. Utsushimi (2000) is an intriguing hybrid of fiction and documentary about two different stages and two merging artistic visions – butoh and the catwalk, with a romantic subplot that converges at the end. Bicycle Sighs conjoins the attempt of an amateur filmmaker and his often mysteriously absent friend, with the SFX fantasy film-within-a-film world of a transparent superhero. Into a Dream (2005) juggles three imaginary worlds – all featuring the same characters in different roles and backgrounds, but acting out the same personalities and mannerisms, and sharing a common anxiety about sexually transmitted diseases. The question is, who is in whose dream? Which world is illusion, which one is real?

into-a-dream-sono-sion-2.jpgInto A Dream, 2005

In Strange Circus (2005), actress Masumi Miyazaki makes a comeback playing four roles – a mother jealous of her husband’s desire for their daughter; the daughter who hallucinates that she is her mother; the daughter when she’s grown up; and a novelist who has made up this fictional family – or are they all figments of each other’s febrile imaginations? A stylized blend of Freudian psycho-sexual exploration and Victorian Gothic horror, it won accolades at Montreal Fantastic Film Festival.

Sono has a spot-on understanding of youth (especially female) behaviors and mentality. His exploration of their alienation, spiritual void and pent-up anger is always sympathetic, distinct from the patronising or prurient perspectives of so many Japanese ‘Youth’ films. Seen in this context, Suicide Club (2002), despite its morbid and sensational subject of 54 schoolgirl members of an online suicide cult all jumping onto the Shinjuku rail tracks, is a pertinent comment on teenage peer-pressure, as well as the conformity, and the mind-numbingly infantile entertainment culture of consumerist Japanese society. It was a huge hit in cinemas and on DVD.

Noriko’s Dining Table (2005), billed as a sequel to Suicide Club, has an equally tabloid (real life inspired) subject – the rental family. Eschewing most of the gore of Suicide Club, it is no less violent, or dramatically powerful, in the merciless way family and social relations are exposed as a façade and self-comforting lie. That Noriko becomes emotionally carried away posing as a strangers’ daughter accentuates, by contrast, how she can only communicate with her real father as a client, and throws into relief the artificial nature of the family construct and her father’s grating exhortations for his daughters to “be happy”. While Suicide Club represented a social phenomenon, the ‘sequel’ actually delves into the background and motives that led to such nihilism.

norikos-dining-table-sono-sion.jpgNoriko's Dining Table, 2005

Kikyuu kurabu, sonogo (2006), his latest film again centres on youth, but possibly marks a new direction and outlook. The protagonists are now one-time members of a balloon club, reuniting after one member’s accidental death. The balloon used for filming actually belongs to Sono. “It’s been tied to my roof for years, and I never got round to riding in it. It’s a symbol of my youth, and unfulfilled aspirations.” Nevertheless, he wants to make a film that commemorates this period.

His next project returns to the familiar turf of the gothic and mysterious. EXTE, a horror film about hair extensions that carry a curse from the original owner. Hopefully, it can turn the genre conventions of the dark, but now stagnant waters of J-Horror on their head.

As well as being a filmmaker, Sono is still active as a poet and performer. With his group TokyoGAGAGA he is known for organizing guerrilla street performances/political protest actions, for more details on this and his films see

Suicide Club with English subtitles is available as a Region 1 DVD from the usual online retailers.

Maggie Lee is a writer based in Japan, and co-editor with Ben Slater of the Japan pages of this issue of Vertigo.

From the Floating World

… in autumn evenings, when the glittering sun sinks close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild geese, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects. – The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon