I have a real love/hate thing going with Japanese director Sion Sono. On one hand, his so-called ‘hate’ trilogy contains, for me, some of the most genius, subversive films I have ever been immersed in; they’re absolutely jaw-dropping, to the point that I don’t know if I can feasibly revisit Guilty of Romance for fear of washing away that initial impact. He’s also made brilliant cinema with a far more playful edge, albeit for the fact that there’s usually a grim, self-referential message tucked away beneath the many layers of flying limbs and arterial gore. But on the other hand, when I sat down to watch his manga adaptation – usually an indication that things are about to go straight over my head – by the name of Tokyo Tribe, I have to confess I could stand to watch so little of it that I had to abort watching it at all. And I can usually make it through anything. It kind of goes with the territory. Yet here I was, switching off a film by someone I claimed was one of my favourite directors. A straightforward antipathy to hip-hop isn’t quite enough to explain that one.
So it was with a certain level of trepidation that I sat down to watch Tag (2015), the first of Sion Sono’s films which has made it to Western screens on any sort of broad scale in recent years. And it’s a strange thing to say perhaps, but I felt fairly reassured by one of Tag’s first sequences – an absurd, resplendent gore tableau strongly reminiscent of the still-incredible first reels of Suicide Club (2001). Here, what begins as a cliche-laden girls’ school trip (they’ve even brought feather pillows to fight with!) turns in an instant into a piece of monumental grotesque, with only one girl, Mitsuko (Reina Triendl) surviving a health and safety worst-case scenario on the bus. Sure, this is a strong indicator that we won’t be getting to grips with Kafka this time around, but Tag starts out with nicely familiar handling. After this event, Mitsuko, alone and terrified of whatever improbable force has just offed all her friends, starts running. But in a few minutes, she finds herself on the approach to her high school, where everyone is acting completely normally. Was it all a dream?
Before she has too long to reflect on this, however, Mitsuko, along with some schoolfriends, is bunking off class, with her (apparent) friend Sur (Ami Tomite) ruminating on how you get to stay one step ahead of fate – it’s by acting in increasingly improbable ways, in case you were wondering. You are, though, prepped for another grisly outburst thanks to the cartoonish tone-setting of the early reels, and – hopefully no spoilers here – you’d be right, even though it all comes refracted through an unreal blend of art-house and dreamscape. There are action sequences, too, which marry the sublime and the ridiculous. Can Mitsuko suss out why all of this is happening to her, before she gets showered with limbs? Or, hang on, is she who she thinks she is at all?
In these massively anxious times here in the West, where we have now exerted such a semantic shift on the word ‘historic’ that we almost expect the phrase ‘sexual crimes’ to follow it as a matter of course, it would be fairly easy to look at Tag and see it as exploitative, even if any culture so entangled in issues and non-sequiturs as ours should perhaps step away from that particular glass-house. Still, no doubt there’d be a public outcry if we even expected young girls to wear that standard-issue sailor girl school uniform so symbolic of Japan, let alone then adding an element of undress and/or peril into the mix, which is what I suspect will turn people off Tag primarily. There isn’t really a moral message tacked on here with any earnestness whatsoever, and the unusual all-female cast for the greater share of the film might count for little considering what happens to them, how they behave and how the story turns out.
But whilst the justification for all the things which befall our protagonists feels rather hasty and unconvincing in the end, and perhaps a very short hop from the ultimate cop-out of saying it was all a dream, I think what we have here is, overall, a decent Sion Sono film which joins up with many of the styles and preoccupations he has explored previously and feels, at least, a lot truer to form. Really, he’s getting up to his usual mischief here. He’s splicing ultraviolence and cartoonish splatter with questions about, oh you know, selfhood, free will, memory, fate, all the small stuff, even if not dipping into his passion for literature along the way this time. What’s more, Sion Sono is doing all of this with his usual fantastic imagery, set pieces and symbolism – that innovative bridal bouquet is a clear winner – and, to come back to gender for a moment, he’s executing a meticulous disruption of the old archetype of the ‘yamato nadeshiko’, roughly translated as ‘feminine woman’. (By the way, I am beyond excited to see Sion Sono has recently been working with Asami in Antiporno, a film about the roman porno genre which was quite literally big in Japan in the 60s and 70s.) That in and of itself is pretty subversive stuff in many ways, however you feel about the way things are eventually wrapped up.
Whilst I don’t think that Tag is going to displace any of my favourite work by this director, I think that on the whole there’s enough of a balance between batshit crazy and bizarre philosophising to be able to say that this is an entertaining Sion Sono film: it’s ambitious, dark and daft by turns. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay as a sign-off is to say that on several occasions, the grisly action sequences here made me laugh out loud in complete, head-shaking disbelief. That’s something Sion Sono always does impeccably.
Tag (2015) will be released on dual format by Eureka! on 20th November 2017.