Last year, Japan Cuts played Sion Sono’s Bad Film, a project filmed back in 1995 but not finished until 2012. In my non-review of the film, I unequivocally called it a masterpiece, and I stand by every word. It is a labor of love that throws caution to the wind in order to just make a freaking movie, everyone and everything else be damned. This is Sion Sono’s world and you just have to deal with it.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a celebration of that worldview. And it’s every bit as brilliant as you could hope.
[This review was original posted as part of our coverage of the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival. It is being reposted to coincide with the film’s theatrical release.]
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (地獄でなぜ悪い Why don’t you play in hell？)
Director: Sion Sono
Release Date: November 7, 2014 (Theatrical and VOD)
If you haven’t been on an actual set, seeing a movie about making movies can be kind of intimidating. Films about any industry have the potential to alienate viewers unfamiliar with them, but simply by virtue of the medium, films about films are particularly capable of turning people off. Much of Why Don’t You Play in Hell? takes place on film sets, and for a while I was worried that that might create a film that would push away audiences who might otherwise be drawn in by the fact that it’s so totally and completely insane.
But then I realized something crucial: Why Don’t You Play in Hell? isn’t really about making movies. It’s about the desire to make movies. And I think that’s something that most people have had at least once in their life. Maybe when they were younger they picked up a camera and made something dumb with their friends; maybe they walked out of a movie and had an amazing idea of their own that goes nowhere. Those people can’t necessarily relate to the creation of a movie, but they can relate to that fundamental desire. And everyone can relate to the need to make something great. This isn’t about getting a paycheck; it’s about art (or something like it). Whether it’s writing the next Great American Novel, developing a new type of string cheese, or Kickstarting Citizen Kane 2: Rosebud’s Return, every person has felt the drive to create something. Many people may never take it there, but that makes seeing someone beat the odds and truly succeed all the more satisfying.
So let’s talk about crazy. Yesterday, we posted our review of R100, which began with a discussion of Twitch founder Todd Brown’s decision to eat his shirt. It was a bet he made because he saw Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and couldn’t fathom anything being even half as crazy. He was wrong, obviously, but it points to just how crazy Sion Sono’s film is. Earlier I was talking with someone who said that it is one of the few films that truly can’t be classified into a genre. And he’s right, because it is a little bit of everything. It’s like the Babymetal of movies, and I mean on a technical and conceptual level. If you know Babymetal, you’ll get what I mean. If you don’t, you’re welcome.
That music video is Why Don’t You Play in Hell? in a nutshell. It’s ridiculous, exceedingly Japanese, and absolutely perfect. But not perfect in the way Bad Film is perfect. It’s something more. You see, the beauty of Bad Film is the fact that it exists. Against all odds, it’s a movie that was finished and then released. Yes, it’s riddled with problems, but the sheer fact that I sat in a theater and saw it completely blew my mind. But the reality is that it’s a film that requires an audience and a theater. Without the pomp and circumstance of that movie-going experience, the sheer brilliance and insanity of it doesn’t really register.
My recommendation of Why Don’t You Play in Hell? comes with no such caveats. While it’s undoubtedly a film that could benefit from a crowd, it could be enjoyed in any scenario. On a first date with the girl of your dreams? Why Don’t You Play in Hell? Suffering from some horrible disease and looking for a cinematic respite? Why Don’t You Play in Hell? Stuck in bumper to bumper traffic and trying not to turn your road rage into a segment on the nightly news? Why Don’t you Play in Hell?
There are exactly zero circumstances under which watching Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is not the best possible thing you could be doing. So why are you still reading this? Seriously. Close your computer or throw your phone in a river and go see the movie. And if there’s no screening within a 300 mile radius of you, you know what you should do?
Make your own goddamn movie.