In Sion Sono’s gloriously madcap ode to filmmaking, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, the concept of artists sacrificing it all for the sake of great art is taken to a whole new hilarious level of lunacy. The film opens with a jubilant toothpaste commercial featuring a young girl singing. The next time the audience sees the girl she is arriving home to the discovery that her glistening red floor, nicely juxtaposed with the immaculate white furniture, is actually a pool of blood. Losing her balance, she proceeds to comically slide on the substance with the same velocity as a person whitewater rafting without a boat. Welcome to the magnificently twisted world of Sion Sono, a place where the magic of cinema truly knows no bounds.
The gleefully convoluted plot of the film involves Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa), an aspiring director and head of a film club known as “The Fuck Bombers”, finally getting the chance to make the movie he has been dreaming of his whole life. The stars of his opus are two rival yakuza gangs locked in a bitter war. One gang is led by Muto (Jun Kunimura), whose wife Shizue (Tomochika) has been incarcerated for killing some men who stormed their house looking for Muto, hence the pool of blood. Shizue’s arrest resulted in the cancellation of the popular toothpaste commercials starring their daughter Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaidô). Hoping to please his wife, Muto only has 10 days to convince his disobedient daughter, who dreams of being an actress, to film a movie that they can present to Shizue upon her release.
Standing in Muto’s way is Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi), the head of the rival clan who is determined to destroy Muto’s organization once and for all. While Muto’s clan embodies the well-dressed gun-toting gangsters of the modern world, Ikegami prefers his men to represent Japan’s strong history by dressing in kimonos and using swords. Aside from peppering Muto’s men with surprise attacks, Ikegami carries a deep crush for Mitsuko that begins to cloud his decision making ability.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is not shy about showing its nostalgic love of cinema while embracing the future state of the art form. Despite being filmed on digital, Sono’s film is a love letter to 35mm filmmaking. It is not by chance that the most revered person in the entire picture is an old projectionist. Sono’s love for film stock may be evident, but he is not above acknowledging that the film era is over. Even a master filmmaker like Sono cannot steer his ship from the rough and changing tides that the future represents. All is not doomed though. Through characters like Hirata and his filmmaking crew, Sono shows that the artistic spirit will always emerge regardless of technology or studio interference.
While Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is not the first film to use gangsters as a metaphor for the studio system, it is one of the funnier films to employ this tactic. The notion of the director being the one who not only orchestrates, but energetically captures the demise of two powerful studios, via the epic Muto and Ikegami clan fight, is quite an inspired choice. Sono’s characters literally cut through the bureaucracy that stifles the filmmaking process. This even includes dispelling classic cinematic tropes such as the young couple stopping to have a tender moment during a bloody battle.
Sono’s seemingly endless cinematic references, which include nods to Bruce Lee’s yellow jumpsuit and the importance of good dolly shots, can get a bit exhausting at times. Especially when considering that it takes a full hour before the true nature of the plot seems to fall in place. However, unlike Sion Sono’s equally crazy but not as focused Tokyo Tribe, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? never falls of the cliff despite tiptoeing near the edge. Whenever it appears that the film has run its course, Sono finds a way to throw in wonderful elements – Ikegami lamenting about how poor the realism fighting style his men utilizes looks on camera compared to his rival’s stylized approach; or the rainbow coloured blood Mitsuko’s victims spout in one drug-fueled dream sequence – that serve as comedic defibrillators reinvigorating the heart of the audience.
Coming off a year where films directly (Birdman, Top Five) or indirectly (Boyhood) had audiences contemplating the nature of films and artists, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is cinema in its purest form. It is a wild ride that wears its love for the power of cinema on its sleeve and is unafraid of bathing in the blood of creative excess. The film works both as an entertaining comedy and a smart action film. Similar to the cinematic craft it pays homage to, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is an invigorating experience that, while not everyone’s cup of tea, will have those who like it drinking up every last deliciously bloody drop.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? begins its exclusive run at The Royal tomorrow night.