While audiences and critics are still debating the unbridled ambition of Nolan’s Interstellar, an equally-madcap film (finally) makes its way into North American theaters this weekend. Japanese auteur, Shion Sono, unleashes his demented ode to cinema, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, which might be the most uncanny take on filmmaking since The Player. Armed with inspired gags, impassioned characters and enough blood squibs to drown Tarantino, Sono delivers a visual feast that’s destined to be a cult classic.
While some people sell their soul to Rock-n-Roll, a young filmmaker named Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa) sells his entire existence to the Movie God. He and his renegade film crew (hilariously named the “Fuck Bombers”) tremble at the chance to make one immortal masterpiece. They spend their days practicing karate moves, worshipping 35mm film, and prowling the mean streets in search of their cosmic money shot. While there’s no denying their infectious enthusiasm, their complete lack of artistic scruples makes the Nightcrawler look like a saint. It also makes this one of the funnier movies of 2014.
In a parallel universe that only Shion Sono could imagine, two warring Yakuza clans have their own cinematic obsessions. Warlord Muto (Jun Kunimura) wants to finance a filmic tribute to his beloved wife, starring their beautiful but rebellious daughter, Michiko (Fumi Nikaidô). Michiko, once a famous child actress in a delightfully-twisted toothpaste commercial, has become the unhealthy fixation of Muto’s chief rival, Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi). The contrast between Muto and Ikegami is played for maximum comic effect, with Muto doing his best bipolar Pacino imitation, while Ikegami and his crew lounge around their castle wearing nothing but silk kimonos. It takes a while for the Fuck Bombers and the Yakuza to finally collide, but the collision is well worth the wait.
The first thing you notice about Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is the manic energy. There isn’t a lazy bone in this movie’s body. As a director, Sono uses playful visual flourishes like double-takes, freeze-frames and slow-motion to wink at the action genre. He creates a hyper-stylized world where dissimilar elements combine to further ramp up the comedy. Watching blood-thirsty Yakuza trying to simultaneously negotiate swordplay and boom microphones is a sublime delight. Sono mines plenty of humor from the gore and violence, as well. Generally, a sword impaling someone’s head doesn’t elicit many laughs, but when the victim continues to invade scenes like a deranged unicorn, you’re quickly reduced to hysterics.
As a writer, Sono enjoys stretching his script’s structure to its operational limits. He develops disparate storylines, seemingly miles apart from each other, only to meticulously wrap them up at the end. To make this risky construct work, Sono builds surprisingly-nuanced characters, infusing them with an addictive vigor that fascinates and repulses in equal measure. These may be murderers and amoral cinephiles, but their passion draws us into this crazy story. Such is Ikegami’s dedication to nailing the final battle scene that he chastises his men for not dying as cinematically as Muto’s men. “We’re realists while they’re fantasists!” Hirata, too, remains thoroughly likeable, even while goading people into the most heinous acts. His maniacal cackle encourages us to let go of our hang-ups and embrace the insanity.
Perhaps the most inspired device of the entire film is Sono’s use of the jingle from Michiko’s old toothpaste commercial. As if a song that encourages people to “Gnash your teeth hard, let’s go!” and “Gnash and gnaw, let’s fly!” wasn’t weird enough, Sono inextricably links these catchy refrains to outrageous acts of violence and debauchery. Wounded murderers hum the addictive tune as they shamble down the street, or a merciless killer shoves broken glass into a victim’s mouth while singing gleefully. It’s all terribly unsavory, and yet it works completely because these characters win us over with their earnest (yet misguided) passion.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a love letter to everyone’s individual passion project, but movie directors hold a special place in its black little heart. Sono’s treatment of filmmaking is where the satire really shines through. His surrogate director may be haggling over production costs with Yakuza, but they might as well be studio executives glaring judgmentally across their desk. In Sono’s creation, the sound stage literally becomes a battleground, awash with the blood, sweat and tears of his beleaguered crew. Mostly blood.
While not for everyone, there are those who will fall hopelessly in love with Why Don’t You Play in Hell? You know who you are. Enjoy this zany, brilliantly-bonkers little gem with as many friends as possible.