Sion Sono is back with a narrative loosely based on the shocking Kitakyūshū Serial Murder Incident (1996-1998). Using the relational dynamics between Futoshi Matsunaga and Junko Ogata, Sion Sono once more ventures into the dark depths of human nature.
One day, Fukami (Dai Hasegawa) and Jay (Young Dais), who are currently making an indie film for the Pia Film Festival, meet Shin (Mitsushima Shinnosuke), a musician from Aichi,. When he is forced to confesses that he’s still a virgin, they set out … They .. the help of Taeko Mizushima (Hinami Kyoko). She contends that her former school-mate and hikikomori Mitsuko Ozawa (Eri Kamataki), whom she wants to cast in her next play, would be a great candidate to give Shin his first sexual experience.
Not long after visiting Mitsuko, a man called Joe Murata (Shiina Kippei) calls Mitsuko’s house. He introduces himself as the cousin of Kaoru Nakagawa and states that he wants to return the 50 yen he borrowed from her seven year ago. At first Mitsuko has no intention to meet him, but Murata eventually succeeds in convincing her. At their meeting, Mitsuko is immediately enamored by his stylish looks and charming and inviting personality.
By mere chance, Jay’s crew films Murata and Mitsuko’s encounter. When Taeko sees the video, she immediately recognizes the guy as the one that conned her family with his charms. In order to safe Mitsuko from harm, she and the crew decide to make a film about Joe Murata. Not long thereafter, Joe Murata, due to his charm and the promising promises he makes, succeeds in joining the movie production.
Sion Sono’s Forest of Love deals with themes that anyone who follows his oeuvre is familiar with. The first theme is the theme of trauma. Both Mitsuko and Taeko are marked by a past trauma, a trauma related to the death of the girl they were both attracted to: Eiko (Natsuki Kawamura), the girl who was to play the role of Romeo in the school’s play. That her death was traumatic is evident by the way Taeko and Mitsuko have dealt with her death, Mitsuko by shutting her off from the world in a princess-like environment and Taeko by endlessly giving her body to others to enjoy. Mitsuko’s solution has brought her life/subjectivity to a stand-still – her subjective death coinciding with Eiko’s death, while Taeko’s solution has enabled her, although the trauma remains unresolved, to keep on living. That Eiko’s death caused her subjective death is beautifully underlined by the continued erotic investment – i.e. her masturbation, of Mitsuko in Eiko as Romeo. This erotic investment reveals her subject as being chained to the alluring almost deified image of her Romeo. In other words, her masturbatory investment in her Romeo has imprisoned her (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2).
Another theme Sion Sono touches upon is the theme of suicide and the suicide pact. Once again, echoing the social criticism of Suicide circle (2001), Sono confronts us with the careless and playful way people are able to think about committing suicide and shows us that the gamification of suicide underlines that, in some cases and for some people, being alive has as little worth as being death.
The Forest of Love also – it would not be a Sono movie if it didn’t – explores sexuality or, better formulated, the polymorph perversity of human sexuality. The narrative reveals the ability of women to use their body as a defensive weapon as well as the subjective ravage a man (i.e. Murata) can be for a woman who willingly abides to his fantasy/fantasies.
The main theme of the narrative, a theme closely related to the previous theme, is the theme of sexual violence. The theme of sexual violence is most evident in Murata’s inclination of physical abusing those that resist his charm and his sweet conning words and those that resist becoming dependent on him ( e.g. the violence against the bank-servant, against Fukami, … ) (Narra-note 3). While one might be inclined to call much of Murata’s violence non-sexual in a strict sense, every act of the violence he instigates is sexual in a broad sense. It is the possibility of controlling others, by charm or by force, that forms Murata’s prime source of ‘sexual’ self-satisfaction. He enjoys having control over others. He enjoys playing with others, especially with women, in such way that they become self-destructive or destructive to others. It is by framing Murata’s violence that Sion Sono succeeds in confronting the spectator the triad power, violence, and enjoyment that marks human sexuality. This confrontation is, contrary to expectations, not caused by the explicit framing of violence, but by the visually seductive exhibition of this triad. Sion Sono’s artistic display of the problematic results this triad of sexuality can cause does not make for an easy viewing.
Another familiar theme touched upon in Forest of Love is the love for cinema and for film-making. While Sion Sono has touched upon his love for cinema with earlier narratives, like with Why Don’t You Play in Hell (2013), it is the first time that Sono explicitly channels this love through a character that resembles himself so much. It is not only the hat that identifies Jay as Sono, but also Jay’s story about becoming a film director through the Pia Film Festival echoes Sono’s own past. But it would be wrong to situate the representation of Sion Sono only in the character of Jay. When Murata manifests himself as director – a manifestation forcing Jay to the sideline, one also needs to take Murata as a representing some dimension of Sion Sono’s subjectivity – “Life is cinema, cinema is life”; “Outlaws make outlaw movies”.
The making of a movie within a movie also introduces a very interesting narrative dynamic. In order for Jay and the crew to be able to make a movie about Murata, they need to follow Murata in order to find inspiration. They need, as to be able to craft a plot, interpreted the context that he organizes around him by his speech and comportment. This dynamic, a dynamic that animates the first part of Forest of Love, creates a narrative tension between the fantasmatic elaborations of Murata’s subject and what Murata truly hides beneath his charming conning behaviour. This tension becomes even more sensible when Shin, who plays Murata in Jay’s movie, feels that his interpretation of Murata’s subject is truly saying something about the darkness he hides. The spectator is, at least for a while, kept guessing if there is any truth to the fabrications of Shin or if the truth that Murata hides is too dark that it cannot be deduced by a mere character analysis.
Only after Joe Murata, as producer, starts meddling with the direction in general and the way he is portrayed by Shin in particular, his obsessive need for controlling everyone, either by charm or by resorting to violence – i.e. punishment by electrocution, forces the willingly as well as the those that resist him into a destructive journey dictated by his darkness (Psycho-note 1). As Murata’s darkness starts revealing itself in all its glory, the spectator, while being captivated, becomes – due to the budding sense of uncomfortableness – unsure if he even wants to see where Murata’s darkness will lead to. And then, as the spectator keeps on watching anyway, Sion Sono delivers his finale, a finale that successfully subverts any expectations the spectator may have had (Narra-note 4).
The cinematography of the Forest of Love is energetic and dynamic. The cinematographic composition is, as a matter of fact, dictated by the atmosphere of the scene. Whether the framing is frantic or subdued solely depends on the atmosphere that the interactions of the character in focus or the interactions between characters evokes. This enables Sion Sono to let the composition subtly communicate how a character in focus experiences a given situation.
The energy of the cinematography is especially evident in the fluid and rhythmical way by which the scene-compositions concatenate. Sono’s fluid switching between the present and the past (i.e. the flash-backs to 1985 and 1993) as well as his natural shifts from frantic to subdued framing reveals Sion Sono’s latest as a true testament to his mastering of rhythm, a rhythm that attracts and keeps hold of the spectator’s interest.
Spectators who are fan of Sion Sono’s work will be happy to know that his trademark visual lyricism is also present in Forest of Love. The visual lyricism of Forest of Love does not only depend on the cinematographical composition and the play with movement, but also on the subtle theatricality that marks the performances as well as the energetic musical accompaniment – i.e. an eclectic mix of punk music, choir music, sugary 80’s pop-music, classical music, dark threatening music, and 90’s pop-synth music (Colour-note 1). That Sion Sono’s visual lyricism allows him, with a fine precision, to modulate the emotional ambience of his cinematographical concatenations at any given time reaffirms his poetic cinematographic talent, his ability to use his visual lyricism to craft emotionally powerful narratives as well as the fact that he, like no other, understands that visual enjoyment is function of movement.
Sion Sono’s Forest Of Love is a true Sono narrative. Not only because it explores, like in many of his narratives, the interplay between power, violence, and enjoyment but also because he succeeds, with his characteristic poetic lyricism, in confronting the spectator with the problematic darkness inherent to the interplay of these three elements. Forest of Love might not be an easy watch, but it is a compelling and emotional powerful exploration of the darkness of the human being and his sexuality.
Narra-note 1: We should not forget to note that Mitsuko’s father’s way of treating her, a way full of strict rules and restrictions that resembles the strict ways of protestant families of the past, has molded her way of dealing with the trauma of Eiko’s death. Her retreat is, in a way, a radicalization of the limitations her father inflicts on her.
Narra-note 2: Taeko’s desire to cast Mitsuko in her next play is aimed at breaking Mitsuko’s subjective stand-still once and for all. But all she needs in order to overcome her self-imposed confinement is another Romeo. And this Romeo appears to her in the form of Joe Murata.
Taeko, for her part, struggles to undo herself from the spell of love Murata has cast upon her. When she cries for (another) Romeo, this cry underlines her failure of subjectively escaping Murata’s charm.
Narra-note 3: Already from the very beginning of the narrative the spectator knows/feels that something very dark – something much more darker than his ability to wrap every woman (and man) around his seducing finger – lurks behind Murata’s stylish looks, his beguiling comportments, and his ever charming smooth talks.
Narra-note 4: Normally, spectators will have the correct prediction on who the killer mentioned in the beginning of the narrative is before the finale starts.
Psycho-note 1: It’s important to underline that Murata needs the other. The image he assumes for himself only works because he succeeds to make the other in the support of this image.
Without someone to control, Murata is, subjectively speaking, nothing. Without someone to control, he cannot find any satisfaction.
Colour-note 1: Sono’s artful way of using colour and lighting, a use that gives each narrative space a distinct atmosphere, turns Forest of Love into a truly visually pleasing experience.