2010s

Sion Sono’s ‘Tokyo Vampire Hotel’ Is Trauma Porn, and Maybe That’s OK

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

A few years ago, acclaimed Japanese director Sion Sono created a miniseries called Tokyo Vampire Hotel. By virtue of being on Amazon Prime, the 10-episode production marks a new highpoint for Sono in terms of exposure to Western audiences, but this also means that it will be, for many viewers, their introduction to his body of work. Fortunately, Tokyo Vampire Hotel is not a bad place to start, as the series embodies, and perhaps epitomizes, the uncomfortably indulgent relationship with sexuality, violence and trauma which has defined Sono’s subversive career.

Tokyo Vampire Hotel follows a prolonged battle between two vampire clans, which takes place in the titular location. Sono makes use of the mini-series format to arrive at the central plot in a slow, roundabout way full of labyrinthine detours, and so the show becomes more about the journey than the destination. 

The pilot episode begins with the ominous chanting of choirs, a lengthy title card explaining the elaborate mythology, and a scene in which three infants are kidnapped and taken to a secret chamber where they are forced to drink vampire blood. After establishing the 1999 backstory, Sono shifts to the year 2021, where Manami (Ami Tomite) is about to reach her 22nd birthday. When Manami first appears, she enters a restaurant and prepares to celebrate with her friends. Moments later, a mass shooting occurs.

Of course, it’s not just the blood-drinking babies and the mass shooting that causes Tokyo Vampire Hotel to have such a wrecking-ball effect on its audience; it’s rather how these things are presented. The restaurant scene, for example, blends the excessive violence with a shameless amount of humor: the killer is hyper-feminine and hyper-cheery; the diners are gunned down one by one with a sense of timing that is almost as comedic as it is suspenseful; at one point, the killer stabs a young woman in the face with a fork over and over again for such a long period of time that it starts to feel like one of those moments where a joke is repeated so many times that it stops being funny, only to become funny again when the prolonged repetition forces you to confront its absurdity.

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

This kind of confrontation with absurdity is exactly the attitude through which Sono approaches violence. He turns the dial up to a certain point where the brutality generates more horror through its mad nihilistic senselessness than it does through the audience’s immediate visceral reactions to the gore. From the marriage of the hardcore content and the hyper-expressionistic presentation, an impression of a certain insanity emerges; it is a stylististic approach that is expressive to the point of being aggressive. Movies which adopt this style are called “loud,” and Tokyo Vampire Hotel is one of the loudest films I have ever seen (and like Twin Peaks: The Return, whether or not it should be considered a film or a television series is up for debate). When the restaurant scene ends, the body count only increases. Manami narrowly escapes the shooting and is pursued by a woman claiming to be her rescuer, who she resists and mistrusts on account of both the trauma of her evening and the fact that this rescuer, like the restaurant killer, seems to murder everyone in her path with impunity.

One must imagine the bewildered reactions of the bored American streamer choosing to watch Tokyo Vampire Hotel out of curiosity and attempting to  process everything. In fact, one doesn’t have to imagine. If the show’s current average of 2.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon is anything to go by, viewers have been as shocked and confused as one might expect. In a rare feat, Tokyo Vampire Hotel seems to have a nearly equal amount of every possible star rating, indicating truly across-the-board reactions, though the number of 1-star ratings is slightly in the lead. One such 1-star review from a disgruntled viewer claims: “This series is only for the seriously deranged, Stoners, Antifa members and other confirmed Psychopaths and Sociopaths! …there isn’t really any plot, just a Jumbled Mess from People on DRUGS! …the people who made this series were ON BIG TIME DRUGS, and undoubtedly, Professional STONERS!” I believe this perceptive viewer may be onto something: Tokyo Vampire Hotel  is, undoubtedly, a show for perverts. By the end of the first episode, it is clear to anyone watching that the series revels in its own gratuitous violence, but… is that such a bad thing?

One can’t deny the relationship between the high density of Tokyo Vampire Hotel’s visceral thrills and its entertainment value. How much more entertaining might other television be if it wasn’t afraid to surrender itself to becoming the pure rush of adrenaline that Sono creates? The series’ boldness gives it an avant-garde quality; other media, by comparison, feels stuck in a past where the visual portrayal of the narrative’s emotion is suppressed to maintain some sense of realism, seriousness or respectability. Tokyo Vampire Hotel throws all such respectability out the window immediately in favor of being at once a pure expression of an artist’s vision and a decadent thrill ride for the audience, and there’s something about that which makes it worthy of respect in its own right. Still, the hyper-violent, hyper-sexual nature of the thrill ride Sono presents is not for everyone, which raises the question: who is it for? What kind of a depraved viewer would derive enjoyment from this grotesque spectacle?

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

To decode the madness of Tokyo Vampire Hotel, it helps to view it within the context of Sono’s larger body of work, where one can get a clearer view of his artistic inclinations towards the shocking and disturbing. For example, Sono opens his 2001 film Suicide Club with 54 schoolgirls joining hands and jumping in front of a train as inappropriately playful and carnival-esque music plays. The middle and end, which follow the police investigation into this inexplicable wave of suicides sweeping Japan, are equally memorable for failing to approach this central mystery in any remotely straightforward way. Suicide Club jumps from character to character, from one unresolved plot thread to another, and the ending leaves viewers with plenty of unanswered questions. Arguably more accessible is Sono’s 2013 film Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, which follows a charming trio of filmmakers who call themselves “The Fuck Bombers” as a series of events lead to them being hired to film a battle between two yakuza clans. By nature of its premise, the film delivers on Sono’s signature blend of subversive humor and extreme violence, and takes its sweet time getting to the climactic final battle.

Chiefly beloved by most audiences (myself included) is Sono’s 2008 masterpiece Love Exposure, a four-hour film which, not unlike Tokyo Vampire Hotel, is so complex and ambitious in both the narrative and the themes it explores that it’s nearly impossible to reduce it to a quick summary in passing. The film mostly follows the protagonist Yu Honda and the obstacles he faces in his attempt to win the love of his crush, Yoko; these obstacles include Yu’s religious upbringing, the fact that Yoko only loves him when he disguises himself as a woman, the fact that her adoptive mother is romantically involved with his father and the fact that Yoko becomes kidnapped by a psychopathic cult leader who blackmails Yu into selling himself into the porn industry until he hits rock bottom. An hour into Love Exposure, Sono takes a break from Yu’s story and devotes some time to showing the backstories of two other characters: the love interest Yoko and the cult leader Koike. Both backstories reveal that these characters were raised by fathers who were sexually abusive in various ways and demonstrate how their personalities were shaped by this trauma.

I highlight this detail because there are many moments in Tokyo Vampire Hotel which remind me of these scenes. Manami herself is shown to have had an abusive and traumatic upbringing in which her parents were merely employees of the vampire clans, caring for Manami under their constant surveillance, and being swapped out with replacement parents at a moment’s notice when they made a mistake. And so, halfway into the series, I realized what Tokyo Vampire Hotel was doing. In fact, it was something Sono had been doing all along. The show doesn’t merely revel in its own violence; it revels in its own trauma.

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

In the first episode, Manami is traumatically exposed to violence, and each episode after that only exposes her to further trauma; she is a pawn of the vampire world, thrown back and forth. One side wants to drain her blood, the other side wants to use her as their weapon. When Tokyo Vampire Hotel eventually escalates into a chaotic battle (large enough in scale to rival the bloody excesses of the Why Don’t You Play in Hell? climax), Manami transforms into a bloodthirsty demonic beast; her descent into this monstrous form, thrust upon her by a destiny beyond her control, drives her insane. It is only when she forgets everything and becomes a complete amnesiac that she can regain any semblance of humanity and mental stability. When Manami’s psychological breakdown is portrayed on screen, it is portrayed in a way that seems to sensationalize or glamorize it as if it’s satisfying some almost fetishistic desire harbored by either the artist or the intended audience. Furthermore, one of the major plot points of the series involves about a hundred humans who are kidnapped by the vampires and forced to have sex with each other. At times, this seems like a premise for some absurd and nightmarish porno, and Sono certainly wants this work to be seen as erotic, but he nonetheless attempts to portray it as a sexual fantasy and an authoritarian human rights violation at the same time. The fact that the “fun vampire show” quickly descends into a depiction of fascist horrors is never diminished; it is fully addressed in Tokyo Vampire Hotel that what is happening is rape, that what is happening is an unspeakable atrocity. Just as much as Sono fetishizes trauma, he also empathizes with it; he doesn’t dehumanize it. In Manami’s case, and certainly in the case of Yoko and Koike in Love Exposure, the portrayal of abuse is difficult to approach because of how aggressive, over-the-top and “loud” that portrayal is, but viewers are certainly meant to feel for these characters, and certainly meant to take their suffering seriously, even if the style creates an emotional distance. Perhaps this is the most challenging aspect of approaching Sono’s work: reconciling his undeniable “gore porn” proclivities with the undeniable humanity within his narratives.

What is being challenged here is the idea that depictions of trauma must, due to the seriousness of the topic, always be done “seriously.” We are uncomfortable with the idea that our tragedies should be tempered by farce; in the traditional view, these horrors of life must be treated with a certain kind of reverence, otherwise such an artistic approach will be seen as crude or vulgar. The problem with this view is that it confines treatments of this material to the realm of the understandable, when really, traumatic experiences are often chaotic and absurd. For audiences who are aware of this, art such as Sono’s — which indulges in the chaotic absurdity of violence — is sought out for the same reason it is created: to bring a kind of catharsis, a catharsis that can only come through the cinematic equivalent of screaming into the void. A famous example of a film like this would be Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, initially scorned by critics for its surreal, extreme and shock value-filled handling of another unspeakable atrocity. Within the past few decades, it has grown in status to such an extent that it is now seen as one of the best depictions of domestic abuse. It’s no coincidence that the viewers who rehabilitated Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me are often the same viewers who champion Sono’s body of work.

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

The most remarkable feature of Tokyo Vampire Hotel is its timeliness. Though the series was released in 2017, it takes place in 2021, and something about it feels distinctly “2020s,” distinctly of the cinema to come, if not distinctly of 2020 and the present moment. The central premise, after all, is a group of humans and vampires taking shelter in the confined environment of the hotel to escape the apocalypse which is happening outside the building’s walls. Themes of authoritarianism are ever-present, both in the human world, where a corrupt nationalist politician is campaigning on television screens, and in the vampire world, where humans are forced to surrender their bodies as cattle to the ruling violence-enforced state. The intersecting fears of apocalypse, quarantine and fascism make Tokyo Vampire Hotel  eerily fitting for our current socio-political landscape, though not all will be receptive to what it presents. Sono’s series is one of those baffling and insurmountable pieces of art which I find impossible to speak of in terms of positive or negative takes; one can only say that it is what it is. Tokyo Vampire Hotel is a series that, despite its loud preoccupations and unconventional structure, mixes present political concerns with an avant-garde stylistic approach in a way that many adventurous audiences will find not only rewarding from an entertainment standpoint, but a cathartic reflection of our shared social trauma.

Julia Rhodes (@headphones_cat) is a video essayist and fledgling writer from Long Island, New York who operates the Essential Films YouTube channel. She currently spends her free time writing screenplays and watching the same 10 movies over and over again. Julia has seen her favorite film, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, 16 times.

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