The gonzo reality of Sion Sono’s cinematic universe develops unabashed in his 2013 film Why Don’t You Play in Hell? With smatterings of romance, extreme violence and absurdist comedy, a dedicated group of aspiring cinephiles become entangled in the world of the yakuza and set out to make the greatest movie ever made. Partially a thesis on the nature of cinema, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? plays on insecure masculinity and its delirious impulse towards self-destruction.
As a former child star and daughter of a yakuza boss, Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaidô) aspires to become a movie star. Beautiful, young and possessed, she inspires obsession in the men who meet her, channeling the Severin ideal of Venus in Furs. Even her father, in a moment of tense creepiness, proudly declares how “sexy” she is. Yet, for all that, she could not care less. Apathetic and disenchanted, Mitsuko humiliates and disregards nearly all male attention. When she meets Koji (Gen Hoshino), a hapless bystander, and offers to pay him to be her boyfriend for a day, he knows that it would be a bad idea but can’t resist. Sitting by her feet and strapping up her threateningly spiked heel, Koji looks up at her as she barely pays him any notice. And he crumbles as weak, frustrated and fired up desire push him to obey her. Koji’s uncontrollable lust muzzled by doubt still possesses him to act against all reason, and his meager sense of self dissipates even further under her thrall.
Aside from the operatic finale, the film’s highlight, without a doubt, has to be Mitsuko’s demonstration of power by way of a piece of glass and a kiss. Dragging Koji along to a former lover’s house, she confronts him in bed as she places a piece of glass on her tongue, kissing him deeply and passionately until he starts to choke first on his own blood (and then presumably on the glass as well). It’s high fantasy sex, as this moment combines nightmare with intoxicating hunger: the lust for blood and destruction rendered through a woman who wants to destroy men. Mitsuko’s apathy in the way she handles and deals with those around her, mixed with her sullen body language, creates a singular feminine archetype that has all but disappeared from American screens. She comes to embody the idea that even the most powerful of men want to be dominated and made feel small by a beautiful woman. Meanwhile, in the film within the film, Mitsuko’s stand-in limply threatens her former lover with a gun; life has been drawn out of the sequence, rendered false and flat. Cinema, for its infinite possibilities, sometimes pales in comparison to the absurdity of the real world.
The idea of what it means to be a “man” echoes throughout Why Don’t You Play in Hell? At the end of the day, possibly, the only male figure who comes to embody this ideal masculinity would be the mad filmmaker who orchestrates the epic yakuza war. Not only does he repeatedly stand up to various members of the yakuza and make them obedient, he becomes the singular orchestrator of one of the greatest massacres of all time. He also, notably, might be the only man not to fall for Mitsuko’s charms, or even that of any women. As the God behind the scenes, he does not “perform” identity, as even the icons of masculinity — the Yakuza — mug and play to the camera, worried about how they might look, getting the girl and winning over the hearts of a future audience. The director, at the expense of his sanity, has completely transcended these needs and wants, attaining a higher power by way of cinema.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.