GUILTY OF ROMANCE (2011)
Updated: Apr 10
A gruesome exploration of Japanese sexuality!
Director: Sion Sono
Cast: Megumi Kagurazaka, Makoto Togashi, Miki Mizuno, Kanji Tsuda, Ryûju Kobayashi
Related films: Love Exposure, In the Realm of the Senses, Visitor Q, A Snake of June
Director Sion Sono rose to fame in the 2000’s, when he made films like Suicide Club (2001), Noriko’s Dinner Table (2004), Strange Circus (2005) and Love Exposure (2008). His movies were known for provocative statements and eclectic style. Then came Guilty of Romance, and took Sono’s outlandish antics to another level.
Up till this point, Sono had succeeded in combining his personal filmmaking style with gripping storytelling. Guilty of Romance also had the potential to captivate, but the convoluted presentation disrupts the emotional connection between the characters and the viewers. There is a certain voyeuristic appeal in the macabre esthetics and graphic content. Even so, the film fails in making us care about the characters, or where the story might lead.
Guilty of Romance is best described as a violation of the senses. It is filled with references to other films and Japanese pop culture, which makes it an interesting case study for sure. The story is loaded with thought-provoking statements about Japanese society. This makes the film perfect for analyses, but also somewhat of a chore to sit through.
Behind the visual spectacle there is a fascinating story to be found. By far the most interesting aspect of the multilayered narrative, is the tale of a housewife transforming from subdued homemaker to nude model, to full-fledged sex worker and streetwalker in the seediest corners of Tokyo. Her journey starts when she takes a job at a local convenience store.
Another storyline concerns a heinous murder and its investigation. The victim is mutilated and conjoined with parts of a mannequin, into some sort of grisly installation art. There is also a third storyline, in which a respected college professor is revealed to be working the streets at night. She sells her body in search for freedom and sense in a world that gives nothing back, other than humiliation and decay.
The story is an in-depth study of the human psyche. The unknown details of the grisly murder create the tension. The intentional hiding of said details is somewhat overstressed though. When film style trumps content for the nth time, it becomes a slight annoyance.
Pop-cultural references and peculiar cinematography is at the forefront of the production. This makes for pretty demanding storytelling. It is of course a matter of taste and opinion, but unless Shinya Tsukamoto or David Lynch are your favorite filmmakers, chances are that this film will leave you gasping for coherence in a vast sea of numbing nothingness.
The postmodern expression puts Sono in league with his countryman Takashi Miike. Lynch-like surrealism, and debauchery ala Stanley Kubrick, are but a few of the references that renders Guilty of Romance postmodern (or whatever succeeds postmodernity). For instance, the young pimp who assaults his women with pink, paint-filled water balloons, resembles a somewhat less sociopathic Alex from Clockwork Orange.
There are also some unmistakable parallels between Guilty of Romance and Natsuo Kirino’s novel Grotesque. Though the narratives are different, the manner in which Tokyo’s dark, seamy underbelly is described, is very similar. Whether this is the result of both Sono and Kirino being inspired by actual events, or if one inspired the other, is hard to say.
The plethora of more or less obscure references is reflected in the stylistic language. As such, the film style can be described as a mix of art film tendencies, Hollywood surrealism (yes, the contradiction in terms is intentional) and Japanese shock cinema. Hand held camera, rapid pans, and a relatively high cutting tempo are some of the more prominent stylistic features that add to the haphazard expression.
To some extent, the surrealism and dark humor undermine the atmosphere of depravity and depression. Still, much like Kirino’s book «Grotesque», the depictions of the Japanese sex industry leave quite a few haunting images on its viewers’ cerebral cortexes.
The use of strong colors bring to mind the films of Dario Argento, with the obvious touch of Japanese shock. The score consists of some baroque-sounding eerie tunes, played mainly on piano or violin. They come and go throughout the film, and bring the various influences together. The score appears avant-garde at first, but soon enough it becomes overdone and exploited to the point of irritation.
Between the lines
Sion Sono has more than a few times attempted to address misogyny in Japanese society. Though this has led to Sono himself being accused of misogyny, it also forces his viewers to think twice about the underlying themes in his films. In line with some of his other productions, like Love Exposure or Antiporno, also Guilty of Romance introduces women who break out of the roles that society has thrust upon them.
The housewife, the educator and the diligent worker all break out of their roles, and explore the darker sides of their own psyche. They are all at odds with their own society, they are all flirting with self destruction, and they all trade the security of conformity in order to experience moments of freedom. The price they have to pay seems inconsequential, when the reward is an opportunity to explore their own individuality.
The choices of these three women might seem absurd to most people. But the loss of freedom and self can be an unbearable pill to swallow. Imagine a society built upon the notion that everyone is the same. In such a society, individuality becomes a precious commodity. As a non-Japanese film reviewer, my impression might not be grounded in reality, but at least, it sheds some light on how Guilty of Romance is perceived by outsiders.
When it comes down to it, Guilty of Romance isn’t all that bad. It is lot to digest however, perhaps too much. The film barely managed to maintain my interest throughout its duration, and only due to its innate voyeuristic attraction. The abundance of references and explosive visual imagery, leaves us the viewers feeling as empty, or emotionally numb as the characters in the film.
The feeling of emptiness could be the result of many narrative threads being left unexplored, or the somewhat ambiguous ending. That being said, the questions left at the end appear unrelated to the numbness experienced. If anything, the plentitude of references and stylistic violations give the impression that Sono wanted to embrace it all, every nook and cranny of his own inspirations.
At first, Guilty of Romance does indeed appear to capture every aspect of Sono’s twisted mind. Ultimately the attempt to trigger the senses in every imaginable way backfires, when the overload numbs your every fiber. Guilty of Romance is a tapestry as dastardly vile as the body-part art installation from its own story. Unfortunately, it ended up overdone and floating in its own cesspool of nothingness.
Gruesome mutilations and twisted sexuality might not need the enhancement of crystal clear HD, but who are we kidding? If there is a blu-ray version available, it is the only way to watch the works of Sion Sono that JCA can recommend. Our favorite versions are the Olive Films special edition for the American market, and the Eureka Entertainment version for the European market.
Unfortunately, the Eureka version is sold out at the moment, but the American version is available here at Olive Films. European readers are advised to check out this list of alternative versions from Blu-ray.com