Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Sion Sono
Cast: Jun Kunimura, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Fumi Nikaido, Hiroki Hasegawa, Gen Hoshino, Tomochika, Tak Sakaguchi, Itsuji Itao, Hiroyuki Onoue, Tetsu Watanabe, Tasuku Nagaoka, Akihiro Kitamura, Megumi Kagurazaka, Motoki Fukami
Running Time: 129 min.
By Kyle Warner
Sion Sono is my kind of madman. In recent years Sono has made some of the zaniest, most singularly inventive films in the world. Love Exposure was a strangely lovable four hour epic about religion, perverts, and evil cults. Himizu, while difficult to really enjoy, is perhaps one of the angriest works of art I’ve ever seen. Sono even made a bizarre horror movie about haunted hair extensions called Exte – and it didn’t suck. With Why Don’t You Play in Hell? Sono has made what is perhaps his most mainstream work in years, a blend of gangster dramas and showbiz comedies. It’s a crazy, bloody, hilarious film that seems to have been created for those of us who not only enjoy movies but also admire the art of filmmaking and the people who devote their lives to the craft. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a film for film lovers… and I loved it.
It begins with toothpaste. The daughter of yakuza boss Muto (Jun Kunimura) is gaining popularity as a child actress thanks to her catchy toothpaste commercial. When a rival family attacks the Muto household, they find the boss isn’t home and are greeted by Muto’s wife and a butcher knife instead. Muto’s wife kills the gangsters but goes to the extreme and lands herself a ten year stint in prison. What’s worse than the jail time is that her daughter’s commercial will be pulled off the air, derailing her promising acting career.
Fast forward a decade. Muto has promised his wife that he’ll do whatever he can to help their daughter become a star. Now he only has a little over a week to get his daughter (Fumi Nikaido) into a movie and have it finished by the time his wife gets released. Of course, there’s a problem: they’re yakuza, not filmmakers. So, in their desperation the Muto family turns to an underground film crew called the F— Bombers to help make their film a reality.
The storyline is fairly complex but it’s largely secondary to Sono’s crazy sense of humor, an ensemble of memorable characters played by enthusiastic actors, and a fantastic, action-packed finale.
By the end of the film, Muto figures that the best way to make his movie and crush his rivals is to basically film an actual raid on a rival’s headquarters. Yakuza battle it out with swords and machine guns while the camera crew run around filming it all and giving their bloody ‘actors’ instructions on how best to kill each other. It’s bloody mayhem played for laughs.
However, I suspect not everyone in the audience will be laughing. The gore and insanity may either offend or simply go over the heads of some people. For my part, the comedy connected with a high batting average, and I was either laughing my head off or staring with mouth agape for most the film’s runtime.
There is a short period in the middle of the movie where things get a bit too mean-spirited and the drama dirties things. The laughs stop coming, the violence isn’t funny, and the characters look uglier than before. I think it’s during this time that the F— Bombers fall to the background of the picture until the plot needs them again. Thankfully Sono comes back to them just in time. The film works best as a crazy piece of comedy and sometimes the gangster drama threatens to take over, making it into something it’s not. Also, while I found the bloody finale to be a complete blast, it did feature some lame CGI blood. At times it looked like a videogame. Still, it’s all in good fun, so realism wasn’t one of the primary concerns. If you can get past the CGI blood and the story’s brief identity crisis then Why Don’t You Play in Hell? makes for a wonderfully weird night at the movies.
Shinichi Tsutsumi (Unlucky Monkey) plays the rival yakuza boss Ikegami, who has become detached from reality. While I’ve seen Tsutsumi in some comedies before, nothing could’ve prepared me for his gonzo performance here. His gruff voice is reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune, but his rubber face rivals 90’s Jim Carrey. It’s a bold, shameless performance, and I kind of loved every minute he was on the screen. His biggest comic challenger comes from Hiroki Hasegawa, who plays Hirata, the leader of the F— Bombers. Hasegawa’s Hirata is a rambling, high-pitched maniac cinephile who prays to the movie gods that he may one day make a film worth remembering. When the yakuza come calling, he sees this as his destiny finally coming true. Whereas Shinichi Tsutsumi does most of his comedy with his face and eyes, Hasegawa chews the scenery with his breathless, overly enthusiastic dialogue. Both are brilliant.
Fan favorite Tak Sakaguchi has a supporting role as the F— Bombers’ wannabe Bruce Lee action star. Sakaguchi spends most the film in Bruce’s trademark yellow jumpsuit, swinging nunchucks at the bad guys and screaming at the top of his lungs. It’s not much of a part, but it is a lot of fun. In early 2013 Tak Sakaguchi revealed that he was retiring. Since then, he has come out of retirement for Yuji Shimomura’s upcoming action film Re:Born. I’m happy to hear it. While Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a perfectly good film to end things on, perhaps it’s not a role that reminds Sakaguchi’s devotees why they became fans in the first place.
It’s impossible to think of how the film would’ve looked under a different director. Every scene is signature Sono… which might be enough to ward off some viewers, I realize. Sono is one of the most original talents in modern film but not everybody’s in love with his work. If you didn’t like Sono’s previous stuff, chances are you’re not going to find a whole lot to love here. However, if you’re a fan, you gotta check it out. Additionally, I would say that this might be one of the more accessible Sono films for viewers who are unfamiliar with his filmography. So, if you want to get an idea of what a Sion Sono film is like, you could start here and try out the nastier stuff afterwards.
With this review, I am intentionally leaving out some of my favorite parts of Why Don’t You Play in Hell? because I think they’re best experience firsthand. I’ll just finish this by saying that I think this is go-for-broke cinema at its finest. It’s a film you just have to watch.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8.5/10