GUILTY OF ROMANCE REVIEW & ANALYSIS
Updated: May 31
Sion Sono’s Gruesome Exploration of Japanese Sexuality
Director: Sion Sono
Cast: Megumi Kagurazaka, Makoto Togashi, Miki Mizuno, Kanji Tsuda, Ryûju Kobayashi
Introducing Guilty of Romance
Guilty of Romance is an intricate story where the underbelly of Tokyo unfurls on the screen in a grotesque blend of romance and crime. The film invites us to take part in the journey of Izumi Kikuchi, a docile housewife who delves into the realm of the flesh market, unearthing her dark and repressed desires.
As the third installment of Sono's Hate Trilogy, following Love Exposure and Cold Fish, Guilty of Romance maintains his signature dark humor and the intense portrayal of love and crime. Yet, it distinguishes itself by focusing more on feminine identity than its predecessors.
Guilty of Romance comments on the contrast between societal expectations and individual desires, a recurring dilemma in Japanese society. The dichotomy between Izumi's public image and hidden desires reflects the societal pressure on women to maintain specific roles, starkly contrasting the neon-lit desires that lurk in the shadows of Tokyo's streets.
Sion Sono’s Dive Into Decadence
Acclaimed director Sion Sono made a name for himself in the 2000s with films such as Suicide Club (2001), Noriko’s Dinner Table (2004), Strange Circus (2005), and Love Exposure (2008). His films quickly gained notoriety for their provocative themes and diverse style. Then came Guilty of Romance, a movie that saw Sono's distinctive flair reach new heights.
Until then, Sono had masterfully blended a unique filmmaking style with compelling storytelling. Although Guilty of Romance also had the ingredients to captivate, its complex delivery obstructed the emotional bond between the characters and the audience.
While there was a certain appeal in its morbid aesthetics and explicit content, the film struggled to elicit empathy for its characters or generate interest in the narrative trajectory. The movie, instead, overwhelmed viewers with an excess of dazzling visuals.
Guilty of Romance can be best described as an assault on the senses, densely packed with references to other films and nods to Japanese pop culture. Additionally, it carries weighty commentary on Japanese society, making it ripe for analytical dissection but a challenging watch for casual viewers.
The Art of Convolution | The Story in Guilty of Romance
One of the most intriguing facets of the layered narrative is the evolution of a demure housewife into a nude model, eventually plunging into the darkest corners of Tokyo as a full-fledged sex worker. This unexpected transition begins with her employment at a local convenience store.
Before embarking on Izumi's transformative journey, the narrative introduces a chilling murder investigation. The victim is grotesquely disfigured, conjoined with mannequin parts to form a horrifying piece of installation art.
This gruesome image sets the stage for Izumi's descent from innocence into decadence. Her exploration of Tokyo's underbelly reveals a world of suppressed desires and newfound liberty.
Under the tutelage of Mitsuko Ozawa, a literature professor who moonlights as a streetwalker, Izumi steps into a world where love intertwines with the scandalous, shattering her formerly placid identity. Mitsuko leverages her body for freedom in a world that offers nothing but degradation and decay, a survival tactic Izumi soon adopts.
Hence, the seedy underbelly of Tokyo, pulsating with primal desire and concealed crime, becomes the backdrop for Izumi's transformation. The narrative delves deep into the human psyche, deriving tension from the undisclosed details of the gruesome murder.
The deliberate obscurity of these details, however, is somewhat overemphasized. Guilty of Romance is anything but concise. Instead, the narrative takes numerous detours to maintain suspense, which inadvertently diminishes its impact. It grows slightly tiresome when the film’s style trumps substance for the nth time.
Guilty of Gawking at Lynch, Kubrick, Kirino, and Kafka
The narrative leans heavily on pop-cultural references and distinctive cinematography, resulting in demanding storytelling. While the appreciation of this is subjective, 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.
Sono's postmodern expression aligns him with fellow countryman Takashi Miike. References to Lynch-esque surrealism and debauchery reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick are among the elements that classify Guilty of Romance as postmodern, or whatever the successor to postmodernity may be.
For instance, the young pimp who attacks his women with pink, paint-filled water balloons recalls a marginally less sociopathic Alex from A Clockwork Orange.
In reference to classic Japanese literature, Guilty of Romance resonates with themes present in works like Junichiro Tanizaki's The Key and Kōbō Abe's The Woman in the Dunes. These classics grapple with the duality of desire and duty and the delicate equilibrium between societal norms and individual happiness.
Furthermore, comparisons have been drawn between Guilty of Romance and the works of Franz Kafka. Much like Kafka's protagonists, Izumi is plagued by an existential crisis and is ensnared in an oppressive system from which she yearns to escape.
Her transformation and subsequent journey into Tokyo's underworld echo the alienation, metamorphosis, and sense of absurdity characteristic of Kafka's works. Similarly, Kafka's exploration of guilt and punishment in a labyrinthine, unfathomable world mirrors Izumi's guilt, self-punishment, and struggle for freedom.
Additionally, there are distinct similarities between Guilty of Romance and Natsuo Kirino’s novel Grotesque. Despite different narratives, their depiction of Tokyo’s grim, sordid underbelly bears a striking resemblance. Whether this is a product of Sono and Kirino being influenced by actual events or drawing inspiration from each other remains unclear.
What is evident, though, is that through these references, Sono weaves his narrative into a larger literary context, making Guilty of Romance part of a continuing discourse on themes of identity, transformation, guilt, and desire.
The Making of Guilty of Romance
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 work, 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, 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 mise-en-scène, drenched in intense hues, reflects the characters' emotional turmoil. Long takes and shadowy silhouettes generate suspense and evoke feelings of discomfort and intrigue, escalating the emotional resonance of the plot.
The use of strong colors brings to mind the films of Dario Argento, with the evident touch of Japanese shock. The score consists of some baroque-sounding eerie tunes, played mainly on piano or violin.
These eerie tunes come and go throughout the film, bringing the various influences together. The score appears avant-garde at first, but soon enough, it becomes overdone and exploited to the point of irritation.
Guilty of Romance Analysis
Sion Sono has tackled the issue of misogyny in Japanese society on multiple occasions - an issue he may understand more intimately than most, given his accusation of sexual harassment in 2022.
Regardless of whether Sono is as two-faced as his characters from Guilty of Romance, he compelled us to ponder deeply about the underlying themes in his films, perhaps even more so in light of these allegations.
The film delves into the diverse aspects of female identity, swinging between the dutiful wife and the emancipated woman. This theme fuels Izumi's transformation and provides a multifaceted depiction of womanhood in modern society.
Both Izumi and Mitsuko defy their assigned roles and probe the shadowy corners of their psyche. They find themselves at odds with their society, courting self-destruction and relinquishing the safety of conformity to seize moments of liberation.
The decisions they make may appear irrational to many. Yet, the loss of freedom and self-identity can be an insurmountable burden and the steep price they pay pales in comparison to the opportunity to explore their individuality.
Tokyo's cityscape reflects the duality within Izumi and Mitsuko. The city's polished exterior conceals a sinister underworld, mirroring the discrepancy between Izumi's seemingly perfect life and her hidden desires. Consequently, the city symbolizes society's dual nature and the double lives led by the characters.
Just imagine a world built on the notion that everyone is the same. Then, individuality becomes a precious commodity indeed. As a non-Japanese writer, my impression is undoubtedly biased, but at least it sheds some light on how outsiders perceive Guilty of Romance.
Final Verdict for Guilty of Romance
While Guilty of Romance wasn't entirely disappointing, it was quite a handful to process. The film just about managed to keep my interest piqued throughout its run time, largely thanks to its inherent voyeuristic allure. Yet, the surfeit of references and overpowering visual stimuli left me as empty and emotionally numb as the characters depicted.
This sense of emptiness could stem from the myriad of narrative strands left unexplored or the somewhat nebulous ending. However, the unresolved queries left in the film's wake were not nearly as overwhelming as the visual bombardment.
The excessive references and stylistic transgressions suggest Sono's attempt to incorporate every fragment of his inspirations. Guilty of Romance certainly seems to encapsulate every facet of the director's complex psyche, but certain aspects might have been better left to the viewers' imagination.
Ultimately, the attempt to trigger the senses in every imaginable way backfires when the overload numbs our every fiber. Guilty of Romance is a tapestry as dastardly vile as the body-part art installation from its own story. Intriguing as it may be, it ended up overdone and floating in a cesspool of nothingness.
Film Comment: Guilty of Romance & Himizu
Filmed in Ether: Love & Perversion: Sion Sono's 'Hate' Trilogy
High on films: Guilty of Romance (2011): Finding Kafka’s Castle
The Japan Times: 'Koi no Tsumi (Guilty of Romance)'
Gruesome mutilations and twisted sexuality might not need the enhancement of crystal clear HD, but who are we kidding? If a Blu-ray version is 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. European readers are advised to check out Blu-ray.com.