Quite possibly mankind’s greatest achievement, Sion Sono’s “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” is less of a question than it is a glorious grindhouse requiem for an entire mode of filmmaking, and perhaps also Japanese cinema’s formal response to “Holy Motors”. A giddy self-evaluation of the medium that’s thoroughly laced with its maker’s neo-punk spirit, “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” finds Sono returning to the deliriously flip brand of moviemaking upon which he first built his name, a retreat that follows on the heels of two furious dramas about the aftermath of the 3/11 Tōhoku earthquake.
Beginning with an insidiously catchy toothpaste jingle that you’ll be happy to hear again and again (and again) throughout the duration of the film, it’s clear right from the outset that “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” doesn’t coarse with the same feral indignation that colored Sono’s two most recent films. Under the guise of a faux-grainy film affect, Sono’s story immediately introduces us to an inexhaustibly enthusiastic collective of young filmmakers that refer to themselves as “The F**k Bombers.” The group is comprised of Don (the director), and his crew of close-knit chums (which includes the dolly specialist and his permanent pair of roller-skates, his hand-held obsessed girlfriend, and – eventually – an actor who aspires to be Bruce Lee). They shoot on seemingly infinite rolls of 8mm film, and they idolize the projectionist of their local single-screen movie theater. In other words, if Sion Sono didn’t exist, Quentin Tarantino would have to invent him so that Sono could then in turn invent The F**k Bombers.
Through a long and agreeably overcomplicated series of events, the F**k Bombers cross paths with two rival yakuza gangs: there’s Boss Muto and his gaudy minions, all of whom fell directly out of a Kinji Fukasaku B-movie. On the other side of town is the Ikegama clan, whose aesthetic classicism and wild temperament speak to Japan’s rich legacy of jidaigeki (period dramas, most commonly involving samurai). Spanning more than a decade and casually mourning the death of film as both a shooting format and an industry, Sono’s script was written 17 years ago, and tweaked to accommodate the digital revolution (“Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” was rather obviously shot on a crisp digital format, but its excessive use of computer-generated blood feels like a textual cornerstone rather than a contemporary concession).
Sono’s orgiastic kitchen sink fantasia of blood and broken dreams may not have the sweep of his four-hour 2008 masterpiece “Love Exposure”, but the ecstatic insanity of its final act rivals anything that the aging punk auteur has ever made, which Sono’s acolytes understand is not a compliment to be taken lightly. The epic and completely bonkers set piece with which the movie – along with most of the target audience – climaxes, an inevitable showdown between the two yakuza gangs that the F**k Bombers have been invited to stage and shoot as the ultimate snuff film (and a gift for Boss Muto’s wife upon her release from prison), cements “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” as the single bloodiest film since “Ichi the Killer.” The sequence, which counts a simultaneous octuple decapitation among its innumerable moments of inspired gore, also confirms that Sono’s interest in eulogizing 35mm is ultimately eclipsed by his nostalgia for what the format represented, a magical purity that has been suffocated by financial interests (this is hardly the first film to conflate gangsters with movie studios).
More than anything, “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” is a demented ode to a time when movies were made for the love of the game, but Sono has a lucid enough vision of the future to understand that the spirit he’s ennobling can really only exist in retrospect, his latest film itself a testament to the fact that such joyful virtues will always be available to those who need them. Indeed, Sono’s decision to shoot digitally (as if he had a choice) actually underscores the extent to which his movie is less of a tribute to means than it is to methods, and that even the forces that are most insidiously corrupting the film industry can be turned against themselves and used for good. Sono so contagiously imbues his own film with that feeling that its foibles (and there are many) are remembered as charms, the prolific director once again showing a knack for using his seemingly slapdash production method as an expressive force unto itself. The last shot of this movie in particular reveals how Sono’s cinema is predicated on a palpable sense of amateurism, in much the same way that Ingmar Bergman’s pivots on austerity.
“Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” might have been shot digitally, but it feels like a film that’s held together with sprocket repair tape. It’s TIFF press and industry screening was held in a massive modern multiplex, but Sono’s movie transformed the cavernous space into a local cinema club with a paper marquee. “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” is the wantonly violent live-action cartoon that lovers of Japanese film have been waiting for since Masahiro Shinoda’s “Killers on Parade”. Sono doesn’t care to put you in touch with your inner 12-year-old, he makes you realize how glad you are to be an adult, and be able to buy a ticket to a movie like this.
SCORE: 8.8 / 10
Drafthouse Films will release "Why Don't You Play in Hell?" in theaters and on VOD in 2014.