Tag (Riaru onigokko)

Japan (2015) Dir. Sion Sono

Sion Sono has been busy in 2015. Tag is his sixth film of the year (five theatrical films and one TV movie) and follows in the great tradition of Sono’s prior output by crossing genres on a whim.

Tag is a unique adaptation of the novel Real Onigokko by Yusuke Yamada which has already been made into a series of films under the title The Chasing World. The central protagonist here is Mitsuko (Reina Triendl) who is the remarkable sole survivor of a bizarre incident in which everyone on the schoolbus she is travelling on is brutally decapitated when a mysterious wind like force rips the ceiling off.

Mitsuko flees the accident scene and runs into a different group of schoolgirls she doesn’t know who seem to recognise her. Encouraged by Aki (Yuki Sakurai), Mitsuko joins her, Taeko (Aki Hiraoka) and the punkish Sur (Ami Tomite) in skipping class, but when they return to school all hell breaks loose and Mitsuko is again forced on the run.

Sono is one of those filmmakers where you either enjoy (or try to) his films or you spend your time figuring out what he is trying to say with it. Tag manages to cover both bases in that this is a riotous slice of black comedy horror with a slyly potent message which, thus far, has been subject to much divisive speculation and debate.

Anyone familiar with Sono’s works will already be well aware of his dark and provocative sense of humour (Love Exposure, Why Don’t You Play In Hell?) and propensity for absurdly graphic violence (EXTE, Suicide Club). While the latter will be a huge selling point for gore fans, it is the former one needs to consider when divining Sono’s intentions behind this film.

In the original novel all the victims shared the surname Sato – here it is anyone female in the proximity of Mitsuko. Sono keeps elements of the basic premise of Yamada’s novel and, without spoiling things too much, has a bit of fun with it in the self-referential final act. One doesn’t necessarily need to be aware of this but those who are will presumably welcome the reference point.

As a film deliberately intent on not making much sense trying to successfully summarise the plot and not spoil the twists makes this a reviewer’s nightmare. Even at a sprightly non-stop 85 minutes there is a lot to take in as Sono takes poor Mitsuko on one hell of a surreal and very eventful journey; surreal being a keyword – the nickname of oddball character Sur is short for “surreal”.

Sur even imparts a helpful pearl of wisdom to Mitsuko: “Life is surreal. Don’t let it get to you!” during their truancy as she explains the theory of alternate realities as a possible explanation for Mitsuko’s earlier bus incident. To validate this theory, the story then literally morphs into that of 25 year-old Keiko (former AKB48 member Mariko Shinoda) who is about to get married, much to her shock, which concludes with a sequence of hallucinogenic madness that evokes Ken Russell.

As Keiko flees from the church we experience another story shift involving champion runner Izumi (Erina Mano), currently in the midst of a marathon with her unfamiliar to her teammates.

Okay I’ve said enough about the plot. To make sense of this (good luck) you’ll need to see the film for yourself and it is easier to understand with all the interlocking parts in place to hold everything together. The denouement is no less esoteric but the explanation is surprisingly blatant in its delivery for what had previously been an obtusely satirical film.

But it does clarify what Sono was trying to say with this film and responds to the criticisms of whether this was pro-women or typical sexist nonsense. It doesn’t take long to notice that there aren’t any male actors in this film and this remains true until the final act when we learn why. Suddenly the wedding scene makes sense, as does the symbolism of all the protagonists running from something.

Sono’s tongue is most definitely in his cheek and he is being deliberately provocative in the same way Johnny Speight used Alf Garnett to mock racists and bigots. No nudity but the anime-esque fan service is intentional for this reason which will no doubt go over the heads of exploitation fanboys everywhere. Admittedly Sono’s prior depictions women in the likes of Love Exposure and Guilty Of Romance have caused many to question his integrity and veracity here which, to be fair, is valid.

Elsewhere the gore, not unsurprisingly courtesy of low budget horror legend Yoshihiro Nishimura, is ridiculously OTT with bodies literally ripped in half and geysers of blood gushing freely, while the sight of Keiko marching down the wedding aisle with a broken bottle for her bouquet is just one example of the black humour which permeates through every frame of this film.

Complimenting the superb cinematography, Sono has chosen a suitably photogenic but talented cast to bring this nightmare vision to life. Reina Triendl’s naturally expressive face, from her coy and timorous smile to her emotive essaying of terror and dread, makes Mitsuko an endearing protagonist. Yuki Sakurai as Aki supplies the stability to Mitsuko’s confusion and handles her emotional scenes well, with Sono’s latest muse Erina Mano holding her own as Izumi.

Sono appears to have been too clever with Tag in delivering something much deeper and thematically subversive to what the trailer suggests, thus those who see the violent treatment towards the females will be abhorred by such misogyny while those expecting a piece of schlock horror won’t appreciate the satirically daring and pertinent message behind it.

It’s not an easy film to understand at times and won’t appeal to everyone – which may even include his own fans – but Tag is a fun, energetic, and deliriously outrageous trip with a sensitive and overdue statement from one cinemas most important voices currently working today.

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