These days we think of Sion Sono as the recently prolific, slightly mellowed former enfant terrible of the Japanese indie cinema scene. Hitting the big time with his four hour tale of religion and rebellion Love Exposure before more recently making a case for ruined youth in the aftermath of a disaster in Himizu or lamenting the state of his nation in Land of Hope what we expect of him is an energetic, sometimes ironic assault on contemporary culture. However, his beginnings were equally as varied as his modern output and his first feature length film, Bicycle Sighs (自転車吐息, Jidensha Toiki), owes much more to new wave malaise than to post-punk rage.
Loosely speaking, Bicycle Sighs is a kind of coming of age film where three teenagers experience a bout of anxiety about the future near the end of the ‘80s. Shiro (played by Sono himself), Keita and their female friend Katako have remained behind in their small town after all of their friends have moved on, mostly to universities. Life for them carries on much as before as they continue their part time paper rounds and messing about around town. Shiro, the more arrested of the pair of boys, becomes fixated on the idea of finishing a film they started making in high school whereas Keita wants to finally get into college himself and study to be a doctor.
As might be inferred from the English language title, there’s a sort of latent nostalgia for an era of innocent, aimless bicycle riding – of time spent with now absent friends and an adulthood that was far enough away not be worth worrying about. The bicycles themselves take on a symbolic quality and actually end up undergoing two different kinds of “funerals” during the film, once by burial and another by fire. This all seems like a pointer towards a bonfire of innocence but in actuality nothing very serious happens to any of the young people in the film save the usual occasions of heart break and disillusionment.
The 8mm sections filmed for the film within a film segments are often the most impressive, taking on an authentic sort of youthful exuberance. The “First Base” movie that the guys are making is a typical high school scenario in which the friends are enjoying a game of baseball but start discovering their game invaded by “invisible runners”. Later they start to be able to see one of them only he’s wearing a Godzilla mask and carrying a briefcase. Eventually he leaves the game trailing a long line out behind him. When Shiro tries to finish the film it develops into a great sci-fi style conspiracy where the kids uncover a plot in which their own “invisibility” is the ultimate aim.
Bicycle Sighs is a picture of youth in disarray (a theme Sono would often come back to). They’re each in search of their identity, some wanting to move back and others forward but all stuck in a limbo land of frustration. Sono packs in avant-garde inspired symbols like flags with the various Japanese characters for “I” emblazoned on them or another character taking to the streets alone on new year’s eve (also the eve of his own birthday) to wish happy new year to an empty town. There’s a great deal of interesting material in Bicycle Sighs, but ultimately its messages are a little oblique and somehow Sono never manages to bring everything together in a meaningful way. Nevertheless, some of his later skills shine through, particularly in the 8mm scenes, and there’s enough going on to please most attentive viewers even if it seems a little derivative at times.
You can actually get this on UK iTunes with English subtitles (for the moment anyway)