A macabre, provocative artistic movement emerged in Japan during the 1960s that eventually spread to the worlds of art, film, music, manga and theater. It was called ?ero-guro,? a word formed from the shortening of the English terms ?erotic? and ?grotesque.? (The movement also sometimes added ?nonsense? to the mix for ?ero-guro-nansensu.?) Filmmakers like Shuji Terayama and Teruo Ishii crafted unsettling works that mixed elements of horror, sexuality, eroticism, torture, surrealism, and for some reason, frequently clowns and carnivals. Many of these elements find their way into director Sion Sono?s magnificent resurrection of the genre, Strange Circus.
Within the walls of a beautiful, but antiseptic white mansion lives a seemingly perfect nuclear family: father Gozo, mother Sayuri, and adolescent daughter Mitsuko. Sayuri is a doting mother, telling Mitsuko how beautiful she?ll be when she grows up, and how she?ll be able to wear all of her mom?s fine dresses. But one day, when Gozo catches his daughter listening to him having sex with Sayuri, he takes perverse notice of how much she?s grown to resemble her mother. Locking her into her mother?s cello case ? with a peephole drilled into it ? he forces the girl to watch her parents having sex. This lasts until one day when Gozo, the definition of a sex addict if there ever was one, finally decides to have sex with Mitsuko herself. Sayuri discovers the abuse, but because she?s so mentally enslaved by Gozo, she agrees when he turns the tables and locks her into the case, so that she can watch him have sex with their daughter.
Sounds like fun, right? Like the best ero-guro entries, Strange Circus is often difficult to watch but never less than fascinating in the way it peels back layer after layer of the most twisted desires and disturbing obsessions humans are capable of. Basically the story of incestuous child abuse told from the point of view of the one abused, it?s a long, hard stare into the festering brain of someone so scarred by their childhood experiences that they lose all trace of their identity. Later in the film, the childhood story of Mitsuko flashes forward and seems to become an element in a book by a wheelchair-bound erotic novelist named Taeko (played, as is Sayuri, by the terrific Masumi Miyazaki). An androgynous new employee in her company (Issei Ishida) tries to dig into the past of his enigmatic boss, tapping into repressed memories, confused identities, torture, and eventually, chainsaws. By the end of the film, it hardly makes a lick of sense but that may be the point, in a way ? to emulate the confused and jumbled mental state of the main character. Nevertheless, Sono?s extremely self-assured technique triumphs above any of the narrative deficiencies the movie may have.
Responsible not only for the screenplay and direction, Renaissance man Sono ? who?s known in the U.S. mainly for his 2002 movie about J-pop music and death, Suicide Club ? also collaborates closely with his long-time cinematographer Yuichiro Otsuka, and himself composed much of the omnipresent musical score, a mixture of classical piano and carnival music (he?s even a poet, too). Clearly not a film for every audience, some critics have complained that the film borrows too heavily from the works of David Lynch and Takashi Miike, but true ero-guro predates both of these filmmakers, and Sono places himself firmly in that movement. The genre?s return is refreshing because true ero-guro fell out of favor in the 1980s, at least in the world of cinema, as it was overwhelmed by the ?guro? aspect when hard-gore films like Evil Dead Trap, Naked Blood, and the Guinea Pig movies became popular, shedding all traces of eroticism in favor of wet slaughter. Takashi Ishii?s remake of the popular Oniroku Dan S&M novel Flower and Snake preceded Sono?s film by a year, and added some horror elements to its melange of bondage and discipline, but couldn?t really be called ero-guro. Here?s hoping that Sono?s bold exploration encourages other filmmakers to stretch the boundaries of the over-familiar world of J-horror and give those long-haired ghosts some good, old-fashioned, twisted sex!
TLA Releasing?s domestic DVD of Strange Circus features a nice-looking, 16:9 transfer of the film, probably the same one as the Japanese disc, with Dolby 5.1 audio and well-translated subtitles. The disc only has one extra (other than a trailer), and it?s hardly mentioned on the package, but it?s a good one ? ?Strange Days,? a making-of featurette that?s more than an hour long and directed by documentary filmmaker Tetsuaki Matsue. Allowed access to the production from initial casting through additional dialogue recording, Matsue documents all aspects of the film, including multiple interviews with Sono and Miyazaki, who made a triumphant and controversial return to the screen here after ten years in semi-retirement in Hawaii. He also catches Sono smoking what looks like a joint on set (!), composing music in real-time, and observes as the young actress playing Mitsuko covering her ears off-stage as Sono films her movie parents having sex. Matsue even quizzes the girl on what she thinks the incest scenes mean, and she?s thankfully unaware of their true content (Sono and crew were very thoughtful in keeping the child actresses exposed to as little of the sexual content of the film as possible). He even manages to get Sono to admit, late in the production, that he?s tired of this particular film and has already begun thinking about his next one.