Strange Circus (Kimyô na sâkasu)

Japan (2005) Dir. Sion Sono

Mitsuko Ozawa (Rie Kuwana) is a 12 year-old girl who, after accidentally catching her parents in flagrante, is raped by her father Gozo (Hiroshi Ohguchi) and mentally and physically bullied by her mother Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki). Mitsuko is locked in a cello case and forced to watch her parents’ love making then Gozo will take his turn with his daughter. After a fight with Mitsuko over a missing earring, Sayuri takes a fatal fall down the stairs, leaving a confused Mitsuko alone with her perverted father, causing her to have delusions of being her own late mother.

Sound deeply unpleasant right? Well, here’s the kicker – none of it is true. It is the story of the latest work from reclusive, wheelchair bound erotic novelist Taeko (Masumi Miyazaki again). Her editor (Tomorowo Taguchi) hires a new assistant Yuji (Issei Ishida) who Taeko takes a liking to, but when he asks if her latest work is autobiographical, he gets a cryptic answer and along with her odd behaviour, Yuji begins to wonder if Taeko is telling the truth. At the behest of his editor Yuji begins to investigate Taeko’s past and uncovers something strange…

Before you cry foul at me for seemingly spoiling a big plot twist, don’t; the twist is a vital part of the plot for this bold and frighteningly confrontational psychological horror from Sion Sono. If you have read my reviews of Sono’s more recent output, you will know I rate him and his work very highly, with everything from Love Exposure onwards considered nothing short of modern masterpieces.

Prior to this, Sono was an edgy horror director who wasn’t afraid to tread down paths where other filmmakers would gladly avoid – with the exception of Takshi Miike of course whose influence, if not direct, is very tangible in this film (with more than one nod to Miike’s celebrated chiller Audition). Suffice to say, this makes for an interesting viewing experience to effectively work backwards through the man’s career and see the vast steps of growth Sono took as a filmmaker.

Strange Circus has yet to receive a UK release and after viewing it, I doubt if it would make it past the BBFC without some cuts to some of the more unpleasant scenes regarding the incestuous and sexually contentious material, which is actually very congruent to the plot. Could Sono have avoided these scenes? Possibly but they have a vital relevance and are actually not *that* explicit but the connotations behind some of them are naturally and divisively disturbing.

To elaborate on this without spoiling things the fictional Mitsuko suffers severe delusions where the lines of reality are blurred and she loses touch of her identity, believing to have absorbed that of her mother. This is a regular theme in Japanese film and anime (Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is a stellar example of this) but in the hands of Sono it is explored through a unique and some would say twisted pair of eyes that refuses to tow the mainstream line and delivers something that can comfortably be classified as “extreme”. But let’s not write this off as cause célèbre – Sono’s masterful storytelling gradually unravels a densely layered psychodrama that teases both the viewer and the characters as to what is fiction and what is reality.

The film is riddled with surreal passages to add an extra layer of doubt on the blurred lines, mostly set in a small cabaret hall populated by some “interesting” characters both in the audience and on the stage. And by “interesting” I mean weirdoes, S&M lovers, avant garde exhibitionists, surrealist, exceptionally festive and expressive people. Think Ken Russell on acid directing an episode of The Muppets and well, even that sounds a vague and insufficient analogy! It’s hard to decide whether these scenes are necessary but they do fit in with the nightmare world Taeko/Sayuri/Mitusko are all trapped in so perhaps they do have a kind of odd merit to them.   

Aside from containing elements that could credibly be considered blue prints for the epic Love Exposure and Guilty Of Romance, this film marks the final big screen outing of actress Masumi Miyazaki, who, to say she went out with a challenging role/s is an understatement. Literally baring all while accommodating at least three vastly different characters with conviction and aplomb, providing the centrifugal force of the entire movie, Miyazaki was forced to retire shortly after the film’s release when she developed breast cancer. Sono made she sure certainly went out with a bang. One hopes that her young co-star Rie Kuwana as junior Mitsuko wasn’t really exposed to too much of the sordid material as a lot of it would have been potentially damaging for such a young mind.

Much like some music acts sow the seeds for their greatest hits or album in their earlier works, Strange Circus is the equivalent for Sion Sono. Perhaps a lot rougher and lacking the maturity and sensitivity of his more recent works, the portent of what was to come is very much on display here. However those people, like me, who are discovering Sono’s back catalogue after enjoying his current output, might find this a hard watch as it is lot more upfront and unbridled in its graphic depictions of a sensitive subject and is certainly a lot rougher around the edges production wise, but true aficionados of his work should find this a sublime watch.

At least we now know that the Japanese idea of “erotic” is what we call “perverted” – handy for future reference I feel!


2 thoughts on “Strange Circus (Kimyô na sâkasu)

  1. Great review. I became a fan of Sono (I’ve written lots of reviews and a biography) through Suicide Club so I’m not too phased when I see his more extreme work. This is a fine example of it.

    I think the scenes of abuse were carefully done and thank heaven’s because they added and did nothing to detract from the gloriously twisted and twisting story. It was a treat to engage with it.


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