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“Give me a Japanese girl, small and strong. Bare arms and naked blade. Hair in her eyes. Blood on her cheek. Don’t worry. She can still see well enough to separate you from your heart.” (scribbled in a boy’s notebook after watching this one film of which you are about to read a review)
I don’t know where this began. This desire for a woman both deadly and cute. Maybe it began with Buffy. Maybe it began that one afternoon in the aisle of a grocery story in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee when a man told my mom she had such a cute daughter and I felt this rush of confused shame. Maybe I am always searching in art for the redemption of some shameful part of myself. People say they want to see themselves on screen, but I don’t know about that. Some of us never saw ourselves in the mirror, and so, when we watch movies the last thing we want to see is someone who looks like us. We want to see someone who feels like us.
Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is a Sion Sono film. In an early scene, a group of young film obsessives (The Fuck Bombers) runs into a group of warring yakuza gangs. The Fuck Bombers, led by their fearless leader Director Hirata, don’t bother trying to break up the fight. Nor do they do the sensible thing and run the other way. Instead, they film it. At first, the yakuza are annoyed. Then confused. And then, finally, compliant. They take direction as to how best to murder each other in front of the camera. Hold your sword here. Swipe like this. Yes. Fantastic. Cool. Ready? Roll tape. Action.
Sion Soho’s film concerns itself, as many of his films do, with love and perversion. In a Sono film, characters are defined, for the most part, by whatever all-consuming obsession warps their reality. Earlier of his films have seen him explore incest, religious cults, suicide, rape, upskirt kung-fu, and murderous hair extensions. This film does not really deal with that sort of thing. For the most part, the characters in Why Don’t You Play in Hell? are perverted not in their love of themselves or others, but in their love of celluloid. They are perverted by their desire for a life that feels like the movies.
The film begins with a commercial for toothpaste that features an irresistible jingle. You can watch it here. Its star is Mitsuko. Mitsuko is the daughter of a yakuza boss. Her career as a child star gets sidetracked when her mom is arrested for murdering a bunch of yakuza who dropped by their house hoping to kill Mitsuko’s father. Later, we encounter Mitsuko as a young woman tied to a chair, surrounded by a group of thugs. It turns out she has a habit of running away. Possibly because her father has attempted, throughout her life, to turn her into a film star. Her entire childhood has been spent in a movie her father has been trying, and failing, to make. She has grown up trapped in the stories her father wants to tell about her.
In a madcap turn of events, Mitsuko manages to escape, for a time, and she tries to elude detection by asking a random man on the street to pretend to be her lover. This works about as well as you can imagine. He definitely falls in love with her. She definitely still gets discovered and recaptured and now her faux boyfriend is on the chopping block for having supposedly aided in her escape. Mitsuko tells her father, though, that this man is actually a super amazing director and he will make her a star if only he might see fit not to separate him from his head. Of course, this guy isn’t a director. But. Never fear. Through more madcap hijinks, the Fuck Bombers—as older, though no less deluded folk—find their way back on the scene. All the pieces come together for a finale in which a real-life yakuza battle is fought in order that it might be filmed as a film in which Mitsuko might emerge an action star.
Some have pointed out that the director character in Sono’s film bears a passing resemblance to Quentin Tarantino. It’s also true that in the action-packed finale, in which the warring yakuza gangs fight for the benefit of the Fuck Bomber’s cameras, Director Hirata asks that the yakuza forego their guns for samurai swords and their subsequent fighting—in which fountains of blood are spilled and Mitsuko, at one point, decapitates an entire ring of gangsters with a single mighty swing of her sword—bears more than a passing resemblance to those fantastically bloody bits of Kill Bill set in Japan.
This is Sono’s most straightforwardly delightful film, and I think this is probably because, in the end, it’s all about looking good. Films—particularly certain Japanese samurai and yakuza films, as well as, yes, the many films of Tarantino—have a way of turning violence into something beautiful and admirable. Sono wants to explore the horror of this. And, in so doing, he has produced a film that looks and feels amazing, even as it constantly reminds you of its own stupidity. Mitsuko tells a character at one point that she was born stupid and will die stupid, but she has always wanted, at least once, to shine in a big way. At another moment, she also admits that she has always wanted, at least once, to really kiss someone. Not on screen, but in real life.
Mitsuko spends this whole movie trapped between a desire for something real and a desire for something that feels more real than real. She never manages to escape the fantasies of others. Sono, for all his skill, never quite brings her to life until the very end. Perhaps, in some way, that’s the twisted point of the whole thing. Mitsuko wanted to shine big and, as the curtains close, she does just that. Sono sacrifices her to the gods of film in a moment both dumb and heartbreaking. Her final words: “I looked good, didn’t I?”