In rain-drenched pre-millennium Shibuya, Tokyo, a grotesque discovery is made, the dissected corpse of a woman, her limbs and torso bizarrely mixed with parts of a shop dummy, in a derelict apartment normally used by prostitutes. A detective (Miki Mizuno) begins to investigate.
We cut back to the life of Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), dutiful wife of a fastidious, obsessive novelist. Her existence revolves entirely about subservience to his whims, placing his slippers for his return home just so, subject to a brutal harangue when she purchases the wrong soap. She has friends, but no real purpose or life of her own. She longs to do something before she is 30, and takes up a part-time job in a supermarket, where she is spotted by a modelling agent, and before long finds herself manoeuvred into posing for soft porn. This awakens something in her that she barely seems in control of, and she begins a double life. The slippers are still placed just so, but her daytime hours become consumed with satisfying her increasingly raging libido. She drifts, wide-eyed, into the Maruyama-cho love hotel district, and into the orbit of Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), who becomes her mentor in the world of prostitution. A wild slide into the weirder shores of degradation and humiliation follows, going back again and again to a certain derelict apartment…
Sion Sono’s Guilty of Romance is an extraordinary film, one that’s difficult to unpack and decipher. It could be read as a right-wing patriarchal tract warning women that indulging in lust is a surefire path to hell. Except that Izumi’s husband is depicted as a cold, hypocritical gobshite, and a lot of the lusty transgressive stuff sure looks like fun. It’s largely a women’s film; the detective and all the major characters are female, and their desires push the story forward; they all look incredible and are given great scenes and dialogue; the men are mainly just, well, dicks. Despite the title, romance here is in short supply. Izumi’s husband (Kandji Tsuda) writes passionate scenes for his novels but displays no real erotic desire towards his wife. Izumi wants mainly to be wanted, but under Mitsuko’s tutelage tries to channel her desires through financial transaction. Mitsuko is revealed to be a professor of literature at a local college and gives a few intellectual justifications for her chosen path (‘Every word has flesh, the word’s meaning is its body,’ she Cronenbergs). But we aren’t sure that she believes this stuff, as the bitter relationship with her mother (Hisako Ohkata) is revealed and another Freudian minefield is opened up. Everybody’s value systems seem to be built on quicksand and given the perverse bloody mess that results, Izumi’s simple desire for sex begins to look relatively healthy.
It’s beautifully shot and composed, with chapter headings and courtly classical music that brought Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon to mind. But I couldn’t help feeling that the film went off the rails in its last hour. After setting up Izumi’s strict and strange relationship with her husband for the first half of the film Sono oddly has him disappear from the story for much of the second half, as if his function in the narrative was over for a while (crucially, we never witness his reaction to her breaking his precious routine). And while Mitsuko’s caustic conversation with her mother is a comedic high point, the final series of Norman Bates-style twisted family revelations seemed imported from a different film, and, frankly, left me baffled. I’m not sure that Guilty of Romance needed its murder mystery element at all. It’s as if Sono did not trust that the core dynamic, the spiralling relationship between Izumi and Mitsuko, was ‘extreme’ enough and would hold our attention without this giallo gloss.
Still, after catching this and the director’s previous film Cold Fish I’m convinced of the man’s talent, if not his ability to control it. This is the third part of a thematically linked ‘hate trilogy’ (Love Exposure was the first), and going off the rails seems to be what his fans expect. It’s a film I primarily watched with my jaw in my lap wondering what the hell I was going to witness next. It’s a long weird trip, but I’m not sure entirely what to take away from it, apart from a warning to avoid creepy-looking blokes in white coats and black bowlers, but I kinda knew that already.