Tokyo Vampire Hotel (東京ヴァンパイアホテル, Sion Sono, 2017) [Fantasia 2018]

Tokyo Vampire Hotel PosterAbridging a work of fiction can be a taxing task. The job of a judicious abridger is the use their own judgement to reduce a larger work to its most essential elements either for those who, for one reason or another, need a more immediate digest or for those looking for greater accessibility. When it comes to a work of art, abridgement can be a dubious task and, unfortunately, the temptation is simply to excise the “best bits” shorn of all the “heavy stuff” and supporting material. Sion Sono who had been in a particularly prolific phase was given something of an unusual opportunity in creating Tokyo Vampire Hotel (東京ヴァンパイアホテル) – a chance to do as he pleased with a sizeable budget to create a television series for Amazon Prime, which is to say marrying mainstream commercial concerns with idiosyncratic artistry. The 6.5hr, eight episode, series was released via the streaming platform in June 2017 (initially in Japan only with international streaming available a few months later) but Sono also took the step of creating a 2hr22min feature length cut for film festival distribution.

The titular Tokyo hotel is the lair of a sect of modern day vampires. As a long prophesied war between rival clans – the Corvins in Japan and the ancient Draculas of Romania, brews, the Corvins have engineered a plan to lure lonely unsuspecting Tokyoites to an exclusive singles mixer where they will not only be given a sizeable fee for attending but also tempted with the possibility of meeting the love of their life, never suspecting that all this is too good to be true and they are really being recruited for a kind of blood farm to feed the various appetites of their bonkers captors.

Meanwhile, “the chosen one”, Manami (Ami Tomite), is about to come of age. Born during an “auspicious” alignment of the stars, Manami is one of three children given special vampire blood and thought to be all powerful, species saving hybrids. As such she is wanted by every side and is eventually “rescued” from a massacre at a restaurant by ice cool vampire K. (Kaho) – a Japanese vamp currently working for Dracula.

It has to be said that Sono’s original TV cut is extremely convoluted and initially confusing. The hotel, a Japanese vampire hub, is connected to the vampire capital in Romania by a magical tunnel with the narrative flowing freely between both spaces. What we lose in condensing to feature length is the entirety of the extensive back story with the consequence of shifting the focus from the protagonist of the TV series, Manami, to the more exciting figure of second lead K. whose gradual disillusionment with becoming a puppet in someone else’s revolution coupled with romantic heartbreak eventually reawakens her sense of “humanity” as she becomes committed to “saving” Manami from becoming yet another slave to the Dracula cause.

Meanwhile, Sono satirises modern Japan’s ambivalence towards romance as a collection of youngsters are forced into an extreme situation in order to successfully couple off and form a “traditional” family solely to satisfy the demands of a bunch of vampire overlords standing in for a bloodsucking state. Yamada (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), the conflicted hero of the Corvins who longs for escape from his unwanted immortality and an egotistical, individualist world harbours intense resentment towards his own “hypocritical” father who “sold” him to the vampires as a baby in return for various favours by which he has now become the “Romantic Party” Prime Minster of Japan preaching traditional family values and a “wholesome” future for the little children who otherwise face a difficult existence in a country which has “lost its way”.

Sono doubles down on his usual sense of romanticism as his flamboyant vampires adopt an oddly foppish, Regency era aesthetic whilst speaking in a deliberately theatrical manner filled with bold philosophical statements and a florid sense of repressed melodrama. Harking back to Bad Film – another attempt to reorder extensive footage into a narratively cohesive whole, the conflicts are often about love more than death with suffering and sorrow marking the lives of our gloomy immortals, oppressed by their own inability to transcend their natures and find the escape they so desperately crave.

Sono seems to reemphasise their unhappy fates by engineering an altogether different, infinitely abrupt ending which, in contrast to the TV drama, hands the victory back to the people but does so in historically uncomfortable fashion as the victorious hotel guests revel in acts of atrocity against their captors which are framed as a kind of genocide and accompanied by stills from violent classical paintings featuring scenes of unbridled carnage. A contrarian to the last, Sono mutilates his own endeavour and then frankensteins it into something else, twisting his own words and tying himself in knots in the process. Viewers seeking clarification would be well advised to invest their time in the 6.5hr experience rather than opting for the convenient shortcut of an edited version, but there is certainly plenty to ponder in Sono’s truncated tale of love and death in post-Olympic Tokyo.


This review refers to the theatrical cut of Tokyo Vampire Hotel which was screened as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival 2018. You can also stream the original TV drama in most territories via Amazon Prime.

Trailer for the TV drama (no subtitles)

N@NIMONO (何者, Daisuke Miura, 2016)

Nanimono posterGrowing up is a series of battles in Japan. Exam hell soon gives way to the freedom and liberation of university but students know that their carefree days of youth and discovery will be short lived. Job hunting is done en masse and takes place in the final year of study (or even before). The process of securing a work placement is much the same as deciding on which school to apply to – attending job fairs to meet with representatives, getting hold of brochures, talking to anyone and everyone you know about the various reputations of the big firms, and then figuring out what your best bets are. Many companies run written exams which are then followed by group interviews in which the applicants are made to answer humiliating questions in front of their fellow candidates. What this all amounts to is a gradual erasure of the self in order to become the perfect hire, making the same tired phrases sound interesting in an effort to say all the right things whilst trying not too seem calculating or too bland.

The group at the centre of Daisuke Miura’s adaptation of the Naoki Prize winning novel by Ryo Asai, N@NIMONO (何者, Nanimono, AKA Somebody / Someone), know this better than most. Protagonist Takuto (Takeru Satoh) used to be interested in theatre but has abandoned his dreams of the stage for the mainstream route into company life while his friend Kotaro (Masaki Suda) has played his last gig as the lead singer of a rock band, died his hair black again, and got a smart haircut in preparation for interviews. The boys are still good friends and roommates despite the fact that Takuto has long been carrying a torch for Kotaro’s former girlfriend, Mizuki (Kasumi Arimura), who has just returned from studying abroad. Mizuki is good friends with another girl, Rica (Fumi Nikaido), who happens to live upstairs from the boys and suggests that the four of them all get together to compare notes on the job hunting process. Rica lives with her boyfriend (still somewhat unusual in Japan), Takayoshi (Masaki Okada), who is working as a freelance journalist and is disdainful of the others’ passage into the regular workaday world but later tries to get into it himself.

There is a kind of sadness involved in this process, even if no one seriously thinks about fighting back. Everyone wants to get their foot onto that corporate ladder to become “someone”, at least in the eyes of society. There are a lot of rungs on the ladder to success, and if you miss your footing it’s near impossible to get it back – you’ll wind up one of the many crowded round the bottom staring up at the top even if you don’t want to admit it. University is the last time time there is real scope for indulging one’s personality before the corporate life takes hold – thus Takuto and Kotaro both accept that their artistic pursuits have to go in their quest for a regular middle-class life even if they inwardly struggle with their decisions to “sell-out”.

Takayoshi thinks of himself as above all this. He asks himself what all of this is for, why people put themselves through this humiliating ritual just to be locked into a nine to five that makes them miserable and turns them into soulless drones. There’s an obvious answer to that, and Takayoshi’s refusal to take it into account borders on the offensive, as does his often patronising attitude to those actively engaged in the job hunting process, but his hypocrisy is eventually brought home to him when he turns down a project to work with another artist because he thinks their work isn’t good enough. Maybe there’s courage in just putting something of yourself out there, even if it isn’t very good, rather than sitting at home looking down on everything and critiquing everyone else’s life choices whilst getting nothing done yourself.

It’s this conflict between interior and exterior life in which N@NIMONO is most interested. Main character Takuto begins as the everyman, depressed and stressed by his job hunting odyssey but aloof isolationism soon reveals itself as a kind of cowardice and self-involvement born of insecurity as he takes to a “secret” Twitter account for acerbic comments on his friends’ lives, sarcastically taking cruel potshots safe in the knowledge of his anonymity. Takuto’s entire concept of himself is a construction as his eventual descent into abstraction shows us in recasting his interaction with his friends as an avant-garde theatre show in which he finally begins to see the various ways his resentment of others is really just a way of expressing dissatisfaction with himself. This inability to fully integrate his own personality is offered as the final reason he hasn’t managed to find employment – his insincerity marks him out as a poor prospect. Takuto’s final realisation that he is unable to successfully answer the standard interview question “define your own personality in under one minute” for the perfectly sensible reason that the task is impossible kickstarts his own journey to a more complete life, even if it doesn’t do much to help the countless other “someones” out there hammered into a standard sized holes as mere cogs in the great social machine.


N@NIMONO seems to have been screened under the English titles of both “Somebody” and “Someone” but “N@NIMONO” is the one that features on the title card of the English subtitled Hong Kong blu-ray.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Antiporno (アンチポルノ, Sion Sono, 2016)

Antiporno posterIf freedom exists in Japanese cinema, it exists only through sexual liberation. Only in this most private of acts can true individual will be expressed. Sion Sono, ever the contrarian, wants to ask if that very idea of “freedom” is in itself oppressive and he’s chosen to do that through his contribution to the Roman Porno Reboot Project in which five contemporary directors attempt to recreate Nikkatsu’s line in ‘70s soft-core pornography.

Opening in a room of bold primary colours – the sunlit walls of the yellow bedchamber and the garish red of the doorless bathroom, Sono homes in on the figure of Kyoko (Ami Tomite) who lies face down on a bed with her underwear around her ankles. She seems somehow broken and exhausted, staring into a piece of glass from a shattered mirror and making ominous statements to herself. Suddenly her mood changes, no longer the maudlin woman she transforms into the cute and quirky high schooler so beloved of certain genres of Japanese entertainment. When her assistant arrives, Kyoko delights in humiliating her, forcing Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui) to crawl around on all fours wearing a dog collar and then ordering her to allow herself to be raped by an (all female) team of newspaper reporters.

So far, so Petra von Kant, but Sono doesn’t stop here. He shows us that this brightly coloured room is a stand-in for Kyoko’s fracturing psyche, a failed attempt to order her chaotic world. Someone shouts “cut” and we’re on a film set – roles are reversed, Kyoko is no longer in control. Her memories enter free fall as she flits between an awkward (possibly imagined) childhood, and her present predicament as, alternately, plaything and dominatrix.

The roots of Kyoko’s confusion stem back to the contradiction in her parents’, or really her society’s, attitude to sex. During a very strange family dinner, Kyoko and her younger sister have a frank discussion with mum and dad about male and female genitals and how they fit together. The language is pointed, but Kyoko’s father has very clear ideas about what is obscene and what isn’t – “Cocks” are what men stick into prostitutes and they’re obscene, but he has no sensible answer when pressed on how exactly “cocks” and “male genitalia” can be all that different. Her parents tell her sex is indecent and shameful while continuing to talk about their own sex life openly and refusing to shield their daughters from their obvious appetites. They offer no answer for this continuing paradox, only the affirmation that Kyoko’s desires are “indecent” and must be rejected.

Kyoko’s sister finds her freedom in another way, but Kyoko pursues hers through sexuality, looking for a connection in midst of true liberation. She wants to become a “whore” which the adult version of herself describes as “a woman so pure it breaks her own heart”, but what she’s looking for is the freedom which eludes her in her day to day living. Kyoko and later Noriko repeat the mantra that they will dismantle the “annoying freedoms which restrict me”,  lamenting that there is no freedom of speech in a country like Japan and that no woman has ever been able to attain their own freedom in a world entirely controlled by men. A protest against the renewal of the ANPO security treaty runs on the TV while Kyoko’s sister holds up a book of butterflies, exclaiming that all the free things fly away. The women of Japan, according to Noriko, praise free speech but reject their own freedom, forced to chase false liberations and endlessly allowing themselves to be manipulated by a culture they themselves willingly create.

The fly away butterflies hit the ceiling, and Kyoko’s captive lizard cannot escape its bottle. Sono seems to suggest that there is no true freedom, that the very idea of “true freedom” as mediated through the idea of sexual liberation is itself another fallacy used to manipulate women into doing what men want. Kyoko ends up in a “Roman Porno” to empower herself, but is disempowered by it – rendered an anonymous object trapped inside an entirely different kind of tube. Blinded by colours and memory she searches for an escape but finds none, groping for the mechanism to set herself free from the delusion of liberation but grasping only empty air.


Antiporno is available to stream in the UK via Mubi until 8th January and will be released on blu-ray by Third Window Films in April 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love and Other Cults (獣道, Eiji Uchida, 2017)

love and other cultsEiji Uchida’s career has been marked by the stories of self defined outsiders trying to decide if they want to move towards or further away from the centre, but in his latest film Love and Other Cults ( 獣道, Kemonomichi), he seems content to let them linger on the margins. The title, neatly suggesting that perhaps love itself is little more than a ritualised set of devotional acts, sets us up for a strange odyssey through teenage identity shifting but where it sends us is a little more obscure as a still young man revisits his youthful romance only to find it as wandering and ill-defined as many a first love story and like many such tales, one ultimately belonging to someone else.

Our lovelorn hero and narrator, Ryota (Kenta Suga), observes the heroine from afar as he tells us her story, which is also his story in a sense. Ai (Sairi Itoh), a neglected child, drifts aimlessly in an uncaring world forever seeking a place to belong but finding no safe space to drop anchor. Ai’s mother, as drifting and aimless as her daughter, attempts to find salvation through religion but her quest for self-fulfilment drags her from one spiritual fad to the next all the while pulling little Ai along with her. The pair finally end up in a cult commune where Ai is a favourite of the leader – a Westerner called Lavi (Matthew Chozick) who preaches free love but only for himself.

Eventually, the cult is raided by the police, Lavi flees, and Ai is “rescued” but the next stage in her odyssey is no less disruptive than the last as she finds herself adrift in the mainstream world. Dropped into a regular high school, Ai tries to play the regular high school girl but can’t shake the cult member inside her. Semi-adopted by an ordinary family, her life gains some normalcy but it is short-lived and before long Ai finds herself in another sort of commune altogether before ending up in teenage prostitution followed by the porn industry.

If girls like Ai end up in AV, boys like Ryota end up in gangs. So it is that Ryota gets mixed up with two equally lost wannabe gangsters in Kenta (Antony) – an outsider by virtue of non-Japanese heritage, and the blond-headed Yuji (Kaito Yoshimura) who’s watched too many movies. Kenta is the de facto head of a little band of petty delinquent kids but he’s getting bored with gangster stuff and yearns for something more real while Yuji trails around after the lollipop sucking local chieftain (Denden). Ryota looks on casually without striking out in either direction, pining for Ai but either unwilling or unable to install himself as a permanent part of her reality.

As Ryota puts it, they’re all just looking for a place to belong. They don’t care where or what that place is, but what they long for is a sense of belonging born of owning their own identities. What may be a typical teenage problem of figuring oneself out takes on a larger dimension given the general instability of the world these youngsters find themselves in. Another in the long line of recent films losing faith with the family, Love and Other Cults finds no room for a familial solution to social woes. Ai has been so definitively let down that her very idea of family is so hopelessly warped as to permanently remove the possibility from her future.

Neglected in favour of her mother’s ongoing and inconclusive search for meaning, Ai’s major attachment is to unclear spirituality but even this becomes horribly misused thanks to her involvement with a shady cult. Having become the favourite of cult leader Lavi, Ai is used to trading herself for affection and security and so when she finds herself semi-adopted by the kindly family of a friend she attempts to use these same familial mechanisms to secure her position only to end up ruining the whole thing. Re-encountering Lavi (now an AV producer) again as an adult, Ai is still unable to see the way that she has been used and misused, quickly resuming her childhood role but without the spiritual pretence.

Ryota and Ai meander aimlessly outside of each other’s orbit, neither finding the place they feel they ought to be. Tellingly, the only real story which obeys narrative rules is that of depressed thug, Kenta, who finds an unlikely soul mate in a chance encounter with a photography loving deep-sea diver, Reika (Hanae Kan). Kenta and Reika are kindred spirits whose place to belong presents itself randomly and without warning yet is found all the same. There is no cult in this love, only mutual salvation. Ai and Ryota, however, are each trapped in their respective quests for fulfilment, disconnected, visible to each other only in brief, fragmented episodes and set to drift eternally yet always in search of a place to call home.


Love and Other Cults was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)