“Sion Sono’s poetry questions enjoyment and its function within contemporary Japanese society with ultra-violent precision. This is, in other words, Sion Sono at its finest.”
With Tokyo Vampire Hotel, Sion Sono finally found his chance to turn his childhood fascination, which started when he watched the 1958 cult classic Dracula starring Christopher Lee as a child – into a cinematographical product (General-note 1).
While this is not the vampire narrative Japan has created – Michio Yamamoto created Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll (1970), Lake of Dracula (1971) and Evil of Dracula (1974) – it will nevertheless become the most successful vampire narrative Japan has up until now crafted.
Tokyo Vampire Hotel will be screened at this years JFFH (Japanese film fest Hamburg). More information will be available on their official website later this year.
Manami (Tomite Ami) seems to have an ordinary life, but that life is turned upside down when the restaurant she has dinner with friends is converted into a bloodbath by crazy kawaii assassin (Shoko Nakagawa) and it becomes clear they want to secure her. While Manami manages to escape, she is quickly caught by the mysterious K (Kaho).
Turns out that Manami is nothing other than a child from a prophecy, a child that, as she has received ancient Dracula blood, received eternal power and would be able to save the dracula’s, which have been suppressed by the Corvins ever since the latter came into being. A battle between the Corvins and the Dracula’s is imminent.
While Tokyo Vampire Hotel uses historical settings (Bran Castle (or Dracula Castle) and the Salina Turda salt-mines), general aspects of vampire mythology and even a historical fact, i.e. the history between Corvinus and Vlad the Impaler, to construe the narrative point of departure, Sion Sono has mixed these inspirations into a narrative that is all his own. It is thus not surprising that his take on the vampire genre ultimately concentrates on the theme of enjoyment – a theme he already explored in Suicide circle (2001), Why don’t you play in hell (2013), and Guilty of Romance (2011) among others.
In the narrative of Tokyo Vampire Hotel enjoyment is firstly evoked in relation to sexuality as well as in relation to the violent act. Even though this enjoyment does not appear to problematic in the initial stages of the narrative the character of Manami will unearth enjoyment in its problematic dimension. Manami’s confrontation with the excess of violence – the excess of enjoyment – causes ‘trauma’ and forces her to flee. But it is also important to not miss the subtle association between her sexual excitement and the traumatic excess of violence. What appears to be traumatic is as much her own sexual excitement, her enjoyment, as the excess of violence that causes her enjoyment.
While the problematic dimension of enjoyment is made explicit by Manami, the abundance of violence is framed for the spectator in a way that allows him to enjoy it. But behind this “enjoyment for the spectator”, seemingly the main thrust of the narrative, there is – as so often in Sion Sono’s narratives – social commentary entwined with the narrative.
This dimension is first touched upon by Yamada (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), another protagonist, with his remarks on lust and his commentary on the speeches of the prime minister. These speeches may appear nonsensical, but – besides having another narrative purpose – they subtly refer to the problematic need to enjoy and to consume within a capitalist society. The later revelation about the nature of the hotel further underlines this problematic dimension of consumption splendidly (Narra-note 1). And the social commentary goes even further as the very last shot of the narrative implies that the hotel itself should be seen as a representation of contemporary Japanese society and, in retrospect, the by while confronting ultra-violent finale as the destruction of that problematic society as such (Narra-note 2, Narra-note 3).
It is important to note that this narrative is a condensed version of Sion Sono’s 9-part mini-series for Amazon Prime. And while this leads to less character development and causes some moments to lose emotional significance, the narrative doesn’t fail to explicate the necessary narrative nodal points that enable the spectator to enjoy Tokyo Vampire Hotel’s most important aspects: its visuals and the poetic effect the images entwined with speech create.
In this respect, it should not come as a surprise that Tokyo Vampire Hotel is framed with an explosive fluidity. The cinematography is a free-flowing blend of fixed and moving shots in which a wide array of techniques are used. And while this blend already results in exquisite shot compositions, it also enables Sion Sono – and Junichi Ito, Emi Onodera and Yoshiki Ushiroda, the editors – to craft some truly visually captivating scenes; concatenations of shots that truly underline Sion Sono’s poetic sensibility and his talent to stylize violence in a satisfying way (Cine-note 1). Sono’s stylistic poetic touch is even more apparent in the way the hotel as narrative space is conceived. Just like the apartment in Anti-Porno, the corridors and the rooms of the hotel are painted in flashy colours and the adherence of this colourful palette to the abstract geometry of the building gives this space a certain timelessness (Cine-note 2). That his narrative has to be enjoyed – up until a certain point, is also apparent in the way music is approached. Electronic beats flow into speedy heavy metal, only to be alternated with classical pieces. The music, often with beats, empowers the flow of the imagery and does not fail to entice us to enjoy the narrative.
While Tokyo Vampire Hotel at first glance provides more style over substance, the cinematographical poetry of Sono nevertheless turns this narrative into a subtle but powerful social commentary. As much as the narrative threads of Manami and the humans within the hotel are interesting on their own, these threads ultimately have no other purpose than to open space where the dimension of enjoyment and its function within contemporary Japanese society can be questioned with ultra-violent precision. In short, this is Sion Sono at its finest.
General-note 1: Reference: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2017/06/14/tv/sion-sono-serves-blood-sucking-fun-tokyo-vampire-hotel/#.WqLU7mrOWUk
Cine-note 1: Sion Sono’s poetic sensibility is present at the visual level but also at the level of speech, but most often in the interplay between image and speech. Poetic effects in Sion Sono’s movies are thus to be found in he way shots are composed into a scene, in speech and in the repetition of certain statements, often in conjunction with music.
Cine-note 2: There are nevertheless elements present in the narrative space that find their origin in a given architectural or artistic period, e.g. the neoclassical elements of the entrance room and the huge baroque painting in the control room.
Narra-note 1: Without giving too much away, it is later revealed that the hotel survives by consuming human blood. This human blood is retrieved from a prison-like place where humans are kept in an endless state of enjoyment – or jouissance.
Narra-note 2: It is also important to note that the image just before the shot of the Japanese parliament evokes the French Revolution.
Narra-note 3: Sion Sono doesn’t fail to evoke the enjoyment in the revolutionary uprising of the humans as such. In a way, Sion Sono shows there is no escape to enjoyment as such, and that its part of being human.
Effective use of cross-fade