By the time a character, in the midst of an accidental cocaine-fueled hallucinatory frenzy, sees a chaotic sword fight transported to an idyllic verdant field, the blood gushing from their chests a rainbow of colors as they burst forth with the force of a fire hose, Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? had already been operating at peak efficiency for much of its running time. Wild, uninhibited and shot with the sort of zeal that only comes around once in a long while, Sono has created his own ode to the cinema and the passion of filmmaking in a way only he can. The film world has seen a litany of movies about the love of moviemaking, but they have never quite looked like this.
Describing the plot of a film like Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is akin to a fever dream. Nominally, it concerns a series of events that occur over ten years between two top Yakuza crime families, the Mutos and the Ikegamas. The Mutos are everything one would expect from a modern crime family, while the Ikegamas prefer the more classical side of life, bedecked in kimonos and operating out of a traditional temple decor. The storylines fly fast and furious; there’s the Mutos daughter Mitsuko (Nanoka Hara as a child, Fumi Nikaido as an adult) whose potentially lucrative toothpaste commercial career is derailed when her mother is incarcerated for brutally defending herself with a butcher knife against a Ikegama raid. There’s her father, Boss Muto (Jun Kunimura), who wants to give his wife a gift of a movie starring their daughter to honor her release. There’s Koji (Gen Hoshino), the poor sap pulled into this circle of madness when Mitsuko uses him as her fake lover to escape a life under the thumb of the family. And out on the fringes are a group of renegade punk independent filmmakers, The F**k Bombers (spoken in broken English for full effect), with their Bruce Lee jumpsuit wearing former mobster action star in waiting, who just want to make one great film despite their utter lack of money and ideas.
It is a ton of plot with a sprawling cast of characters, but Sono never lets this phase him. For a film with the relentless pace this has, its 130 minutes seem like more than enough to get everything done without feeling rushed or unbalanced. It is a work of incredible style, opening with a toothpaste jingle that burrows into the brain and closing with a titanic bloodbath and never bothering to slow down in between. Sono shoots his story with the glee he instills in the F**k Bombers, using every camera trick in the book while watching his filmmakers attempt to use every camera trick in the book as they film real clashes between mob gangs as if lives were not actually on the line. The copious blood loss belies this, and it is clear that there is something to the film’s reverence for 35 mm camera work (despite it being shot digitally) in contrast to its utter disregard for the lives of its characters. For all of the silliness and slapstick and surrealism that color its frame, for all of its ultra-stylized blood and gore, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is never flippant. Sono never loses his admiration for his characters, but more importantly he never loses his admiration for cinema as an art form; he pushes that art far past where saner men would turn from the abyss to the warm confines of a restaurant conversation with sensible coverage.
The final third of Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, wherein the Mutos get the bright idea of filming their Mitsuko starring vehicle in the midst of their very real raid of their rival gang, is a chaotic orgy of violence that also happens to be the silliest sequence in the film. The zeal with which all involved approach the shooting, from the F**k Bombers to the rest of the camera crew, lighting techs and sound guys (all Yakuza conscripted into service) to both sides of the actual conflict, betrays the real life or death stakes of the conflict. When that first man catches a katana across his chest and sprays arterial life across the wall behind him, it is impossible not to chuckle. It is a masterclass in juxtaposition and subversion, offering up the violence gleefully while never shying away from the concept that these are real people losing their real lives even as they mug for the camera crews running around amid the battle to get those perfect shots on film. The F**k Bombers are more than willing to die for their art, just as the Yakuza and willing to die for their respective families. Sono’s true gambit is making the audience care, an impressive feat considering how absurdly amped up the whole enterprise is. Amidst the gallons of blood and severed parts, one really does care about Mitsuko and Koji, the relationship of convenience that blossomed real feelings when rubber hit road. The spectacle is what enchants, but it remains vitally in service to it all.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a film that easily could have folded under its own weight. It is required to walk such a thin tightrope in order to achieve its goals without devolving into parody, but Sono is never in doubt, never out of control. Some will look at Sasaki’s yellow jumpsuit amidst a sea of unidentified assailants and cry Tarantino. Let them. They will miss that this is a work of passion and style and singular will from Sion Sono. It is not always perfect, meandering at times in its second act that takes just a tad too long, but when it is there is nothing else like it. There is an incredible delirium at the center of this film, and it is something that grabs its audience, demands their attention and never lets go.