I greatly enjoyed Himizu, another 2011 Sion Sono film released last week in NYC theaters, but there was something it lacked that I expected from that sort of film: sex. It had the violence (although it was definitely subdued in comparison to some of his other films), but there was none of the weird, creepy nudity found in some of his other films. I wasn’t unhappy about it (it would have added nothing to that film), but I was surprised. When I checked out Guilty of Romance and randomly clicked on a part of the timeline, I found myself staring at a woman on all fours in a colorful room, presumably a love hotel, in the middle of that most intimate of acts.
And there was the Sion Sono I had expected. For better or worse, what Himizu lacked, Guilty of Romance has in spades.
Guilty of Romance (Koi no Tsumi | 恋の罪)
Director: Sion Sono
Release Date: March 17, 2014 (NYC)
In a parallel universe, Guilty of Romance is called Sukimono, which the internet tells me translates to “Nymphomaniac.” While it lacks the explicit pornography found in Lars von Trier’s sexual opus, its protagonist is every bit as tortured by her obsession with sex. Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) is the adoring wife of beloved romance novelist Yukio Kikuchi (Kanji Tsuda), though she plays the role of servant more than wife. Each morning, she helps him get ready for work, and every night she makes sure his tea is ready and his slippers are placed perfectly in front of the door. Their sex life is non-existent. (That she doesn’t wonder where the inspiration for his erotic writing comes from is odd, but whatever.)
But this all takes place in the past. In the present (a time that’s only visited on a few occasions), a grisly murder has occurred, and in a particularly disgusting abandoned apartment, two bodies are found, with limbs and heads replaced by those of manequins (at that point, I regretted my decision to watch the film immediately before going to sleep, but I fortunately didn’t have any nightmares). I don’t know how much the film gains by its use of the framing narrative. It adds some extra gross-factor and the cloud of impending doom certainly colors the proceedings, but even though the bodies are not identified until the film’s end, that mystery is often forgotten in the midst of the chaos of the past.
Izumi, tired of being a housewife, gets a job offering free samples at a grocery store. She stands with a plate in hand and shouts about the delicious sausages. Foreshadowing? You betcha. Soon after, she becomes the sex-crazed maniac she had always longed to be. And for a while, everything seems to be going well, but this is a Sion Sono film, so things have to take a turn. Also, someone’s going to get butchered, so obviously there’s no happy ending.
But through all of this, I found myself detached from the action. The sex is often upsetting and disturbing to watch, but even so I couldn’t really care about what was happening. I’ve been wrestling with why that is, and I think I’ve figured it out: Sion Sono’s hyper-stylized visuals. The colorful room I mentioned before the jump was not colorful because the room was particularly vibrant, but because the lights were. All throughout Guilty of Romance, colorful hues help to define locations and times. In the morning, Izumi’s house is white; at night, it’s yellow. The seedy underground world is harsh red and green. In the pure light of her home, it’s easier to relate; but when the environment is as unsettling as the people it contains, it becomes difficult to connect on any kind of human level. It just doesn’t feel real. And since things go wrong almost exclusively in those bizzaro settings, I found myself seeing insanity without any feelings other than, perhaps, disgust.
(In retrospect, this is probably why I wasn’t a huge fan of Sono’s even more stylized Strange Circus.)
But even as I felt disconnected from the characters, I was still invested in the experience. Guilty of Romance is one of those films that you’d expect to come out of Japan. It’s crazy, hyper-sexual/violent (and not in a good way), and fascinating. It’s also too long, and I was shocked to find out that the original cut was 31 minutes longer. Sure, this is the man who had a six-hour version of Love Exposure before it was chopped to four, but at 113 minutes it already overstays its welcome. I’m usually of the mind that a film should be seen in its original incarnation, or at least in the version that the director approved (in rare cases, that version is actually shorter than the official release, though I don’t expect that’s the case here), but here I don’t subscribe to that notion.
The 144 minute version is only available in Japan (and Germany, oddly enough), so there’s no real way for the vast majority of people to see it, but there’s no reason to want to. There are places that I see could have been fleshed out a bit more (especially the present day timeline), and perhaps the original cut featured more of that (and perhaps I would have felt that the use of that framing narrative was more justified), but it would have just been more padding to a film that already felt much too padded.
But Sion Sono makes films like nobody else, and Guilty of Romance is as pure a distillation of his style as I’ve seen since Strange Circus. His films are just weird, and so is he. Hell, after Guilty of Romance finished, he and Megumi Kagurazaka (who was also in Cold Fish and Himizu) got engaged. That takes a very special kind of man, and that is the only kind of man who would make a movie like this one.
So as the screen went to black, just before the credits appeared, I could only think one thing: “Yeah, that’s about right.”