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Why Don’t You Play in Hell? – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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To classify Japanese director Sion Sono as simply an imaginative cinematic auteur would be a complete understatement, especially considering his adeptness at merging a variety of genres within each of his films with significant ease. Whether this is seen in his magnum opus Love Exposure (2008), a film questioning the aspects of deviancy, religion, and love, to exploring the governmental mismanagement and civilian paranoia encompassing the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in The Land of Hope (2012), Sono has continually defied the very constraints of the medium of film itself, continually pushing the experimental boundaries of his narratives as well as that of the emotional and physical fortitude of their viewing audience. To say that excessiveness is not his forte would also be a gross understatement as well, with the likes of Cold Fish (2010) and Guilty of Romance (2011) proving his immoderation concerning the deteriorating nature of the human spirit. Working through a 15-year-old screen play written by Sono himself, his latest film, the appropriately titled Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, once again overindulges itself as an experience that is distinctively Sono’s – but does he succeed through such an approach as he has so masterfully done before?

Unfortunately, not quite. While Sono has often tempered many of his previous films by exposing and subsequently exploring the immense imperfections and resilience of the human experience, here Sono decides to take on telling an initially simplistic tale of yakuza rivalry and the fluctuating companionship between a film crew. But for those who are familiar with Sono’s craftsmanship as a director, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is anything but conventional in regards to such an approach, starting out rather straightforwardly before becoming a burgeoning tale of friendship, love, and the need to see one’s true calling fulfilled. While this may sound like a rather standard approach for Sono to undertake, his headstrong decision to focus on so many characters and plot developments results in a film that simply becomes too convoluted for its own good, which can almost certainly be attributed to Sono’s amateurish writing ability of fifteen years ago rather than to his astuteness as a director today.

While other films by Sono have undoubtedly contained a significantly large cast of characters, he has usually focused on no more than several of them at a time throughout their respective narratives. This focus garnered enough time for Sono to truly develop them as characters we could sympathize with or relate to in some manner, easing us into their worlds as we slowly begin to understand their complexities as individuals considering their often dire circumstances. Here though, it appears that Sono is wanting to have multiple narratives intersect one another simply for the sake of it, culminating in a rather absurdly comical concluding half that may make up for the film’s rather unhurried first half, but it does not remove the film in its entirety as an expression of nonsensical ideas and premises conjured up by Sono all rolled up into one overall incomprehensible viewing experience. Again, one should take into account Sono’s ability as a writer fifteen years ago, with Why Don’t You Play in Hell? seemingly more akin to a student project in terms of its risible content and sheer audaciousness than being anything of significant, appreciable value.

This is rather regrettable considering the noteworthy strength of Sono’s several previous films, all which had courageously tackled rather challenging material rather than the comical but overly indulgent narrative as envisioned within this particular film. The inventive nature of the film is undeniable though, as Sono once again attempts to craft a story that is hilariously imaginative in its execution. With the likes of the commendable Jun Kunimura and Shinichi Tsutsumi as the heads of their respective yakuza clans, the film does bring about a rather humorous look into how these two men, who supposedly epitomize the dominance of the alpha male society, can adhere to rather frivolous dreams such as wanting to make a film to appease one’s wife or falling heads over heels for a young idol. It is this subversion of the typical yakuza authority figure that produces the film’s more amusing moments, diverting much of the narrative’s excessiveness to a common focal point that makes it more entertaining than it is not.

But once the butchery starts to commence in the film’s insanely bloodletting final half, Sono once again returns to his rather crazy self in terms of pushing and exaggerating the absurdity surrounding the film’s premise. Focusing acutely on the notion of a “film within a film”, the narrative begins to play upon the film crew as they essentially document a violent yakuza conflict while masquerading it as shooting a feature film, all the while neither caring for their own lives or the lives of those people bitterly fighting one another. This is where the film truly shines in both its humorous repertoire as well as showcasing Sono’s technical ability in effectively prolonging the madness that is on screen without it appearing too tedious, elevating us to heights of pure derangement as countless bodies are mutilated in the most ridiculous ways. It makes for countless outlandish moments, all to the background of a film crew living out their most desirable fantasy as they finally get to shoot that one major film that they never had the chance to do so. Given the content of the film itself, it would seem to be as though it is reflective upon Sono’s own experiences as a young director, simply wanting to create the craziest film possible and not caring for it to make any logical sense, an approach that somewhat succeeds in dispersive moments but not throughout the film as a whole.

Considering the recent movement of Sono towards creating more solemn works, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is simply a film that seems to fit entirely within the context of Sono’s approach to filmmaking in general – essentially pushing the threshold of what cinema can offer – but in doing so he unintentionally creates a film that attempts to be so daringly bold in its magnitude that its rather lack of any considerable substance is not enough to support it. Here is a film that undoubtedly has all the grandiosity of his previous works in terms of narrative, just without the intense human focus that have made those previous works notable expressions of the characters themselves. If more time was spent centered on a smaller selection of characters, thus narrowing its narrative scope ever so slightly, then the film would have fared much better. As to where it currently stands, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is definitely one of Sono’s weaker installments, but it still remains a rather enjoyable and lively viewing experience despite it being marred through its own ludicrousness.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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