Director: Sion Sono
Screenplay: Sion Sono
Cast: Masumi Miyazaki as Sayuri; Issei Ishida as Yuji; Rie Kuwana as Young Mitsuko; Mai Takahashi as Young Mitsuko; Tomorowo Taguchi as Taeko's Editor; Hiroshi Ohguchi as Gozo
Synopsis: Growing up, Mitsuko is the daughter of a male school principal who is a sexual deviant, his involvement of her causing further tension between her and her mother. In the other half of the film, all bookended by a carnival show, a wheelchair bond female author of such tales meets a young, youthful man asked by her publisher to scope her secret life out.
Revisiting Strange Circus, Sion Sono hasn't really changed over a decade - probably a testament to his single mindedness that, now the J-Cinema boom of the 2000s has changed from material for his home country to now an awareness of cult audiences outside Japan, the same obsessions are here but he transitioned from the aesthetic style from then. Mainly that he was still heavily reliant on ordinary on-location sets at this stage, leading later to more artificial sets and, when locations have to be used, a greater sense of saturation in colour and look.
Sono's transgressive streak is also here, and as always been as much a crutch too. Thankfully I've seen Love & Peace (2015), Sono's Christmas family film, so I've seen his soft and humane side, so Strange Circus' tendency to wallow in the worst in humanity, where the sexual degradation of a young girl through an incestuous relationship with her perverse father, where nothing but trauma is shown in the resolution, is not the only side of him. His tendency to make a lot of dark films - encapsulated in the Hate Trilogy (Love Exposure (2008) the first, but particularly Cold Fish (2010) and Guilty of Romance (2011)) - has left a stereotype of him as a filmmaker obsessed with perversion, trauma and depravity but with the blunt honesty that he tends to shout about it but in obvious ways. Barring the odd touches to Strange Circus, like being a tale told within a strange carnival at a pan gendered freak shown cabaret, it does fall down to the idea that humanity is shit which he'd probably admit is obvious.
Sono's transgression is drawn more from Western culture as I revisit these films, like Guilty of Romance in particular in how little references play a bulk of the psychological drama - here a classical piece used constantly alongside how the young girl we start off with is locked inside a cello case as part of her father's depraved voyeuristic tendencies. The stylised and artificial sets, here especially in their primordial state, are definitely Sion's own quirk, the late 1990s and early 2000s particularly distinct in Japanese cult cinema in how ordinary locations, the most benign like an allotment behind buildings, are a constant source for practical locations whilst Sono would eventually emphasis more overtly colourful, manufactured sets. More so here in the second half, following a female writer writing of this trauma of the young girl, herself presumed, whose home has a meeting room which is a carnivalesque sight of grotesquely distinct wall ornaments and decor; there's even the curious sight of a restaurant/bar that is designed as a Catholic church right down to the all-female waiting staff being dressed as nuns.
Sono's a primal filmmaker, not really that complicated and psychological in terms of excessive dialogue, but through the gut. There is as much a sense, as originally a genre director whose made his way through pinku softcore and films like this, he makes films as much with an eye on shocking or exciting the audience in luridness too that has to be barred in mind despite also his career including being an author and poet. Strange Circus still has a weird, distinct edge I admire - scenes of the young girl's school life as if the high school for Cenobites in fleshy blood red corridor walls and her head teacher father making speeches to her class as a giant set of eyes on a television pushed around by schoolchildren. And certainly as a psychodrama, it's vivid, taking in cruelty, parental abuse, physical and psychological trauma as the authoress is wheelchair bound, and twists as that's to question alongside what exactly she has hidden in the cello case upstairs, out of sight, in a garbage and waste food strewn room. All whilst the young, fey male assistant she has her eyes on isn't exactly conventional either, at least briefly joining a club meeting for individuals who practical body modification with his views that he had to change his body with implied psychological issues inducing it.
The issue is the actual content of Sono's films is whether they've actual depth as his style tends to suggest. Here it's closer to Grand Guignol than thesis, but it has to be argued whether this film succeeds in this. Arguably, he's an emotional director more than the mind, only with the fact it's a place that rips your heart out constantly and bashes your skull in - the first half told in a form of flashback entirely set within a traumatised mind before the story of the authoress changes it completely. Sono is both sincere but rash in his bluntness.
[Major Spoiler Warnings]
As Strange Circus is designed to put all its chips on the table for the second half, all the first half is a complete distorted lens from the mother's perspective rather than the daughter's, becoming beholden to this structure more than Sono's other films barring the interest this film has in being a primal, feel-bad psychological drama. It still feels like where he would go in the 2010s, but he's someone who gets to this in his cinema whether tone by a lot of plot conventions, in this particularly case writing himself into a corner that he could've escaped from, here the mysterious young man whose actually more closely related to the authoress than she thought.
He decides to end on a really bad ending twist, confused in mixing both its all a dream plotting with just a garbled take, visibly, on how Takashi Miike's Audition (1999) ends, only with the added detail of a chainsaw. And this is sad as, whilst not a fun experience, Strange Circus is still an interesting and creepy tale, but a compromised one. It actually feels like a rushed ending surprisingly, still nearly two hours long, an argument to be made that Sono's decisions to have films climb over two hours, to the point international releases can be edited down as Guilty of Romance was, is actually a way for him to have these scenarios reach natural conclusions rather than fall into this contrivance.
Probably the biggest surprise is that, contrary to my original opinion, Sono's improved in terms of this type of story over the years, the complete failure of the ending, making little sense and not likely to impress anyone, emphasising that for how agonising his work can be, utterly frustrating as well in cases like Antiporno (2016), he got rid of ill advised plot twists from his in favour of just embracing plot clichés and twisting them into more fascinating tangents. (One of his lighter hearted works, despite being bloody as hell and looking like it was doing to be a nasty for the sake of it work in the first episode, mini-series Tokyo Vampire Hotel (2017), emphasised that the invention can be found in just stretching vampire and action clichés in weird and memorable tangents). He can still fall into them - Tag (2015) a recent example - but whilst some of his films can be unbearable in their nihilism at times, he had the wiser idea even for his aforementioned Christmas movie for children to use slow burn character drama than an abrupt chainsaw death as shown here.
Abstract Spectrum: Disturbing/Grotesque/Mindbender/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Strange Circus is a film, one of the first of Sion Sono's I'd ever seen, which is still going to be close to my heart, aware how strange that sounds considering how nasty the film is, but it's not without some glaring faults. It feels like a dry run for future productions, and as a result, gets more worth in this as much as its successful virtues.