During the J-Horror boom of the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, no aspect of contemporary Japanese life seemed to be off limits to filmmakers aiming to make audiences jump out of their seats: from the videotape in Ring (1998), to wife-seeking in Audition (1999), to electricity in Pulse (2001), to an apartment leak in Dark Water (2002), to cell phones in One Missed Call (2004), directors such as Hideo Nakata, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike appropriated aspects of consumer culture or domestic life to suit their respective scare tactics. Arriving as the cycle was arguably running out of commercial and creative steam, Sion Sono’s Exte is a bizarre genre entry that adds hair extensions to the ever-expanding list of modern phenomena that you should beware of because it might be haunted. Distributed by major studio Toei and featuring a recognisable star in Chiaki Kuriyama, best known for playing violent schoolgirls in Battle Royale (2000) and Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), this was Sono’s chance to cross over into a lucrative market following a series of controversial independent films - Suicide Club (2001), Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005), Strange Circus (2005) - that firmly established his credentials as a cult auteur. Yet it finds the director working around, rather than adhering to, the rules of genre, suggesting a brief fling with the system rather than a bid for regular employment. Despite this dual identity, Exte succeeds in imbuing its urban nightmare scenario with the director’s trademark societal exposé to be sufficiently interesting for genre aficionados and Sono devotees alike.
Exte opens with customs agents discovering large quantities of human hair in a shipping container, along with the body of a young girl. At the morgue, an autopsy confirms that the girl has been the victim of organ theft, probably committed by a human harvesting operation. Before the investigation can continue, night watchman Yamazaki (Ren Osugi) steals the body and takes it home, where he discovers that it is re-growing hair, not only from the head but also from other parts and orifices. This sexually excites Yamazaki, who is a hair fetishist, while also providing an additional stream of income as he is able to make extensions and sell them to salons. One business that he visits is the place of work of Yûko (Chiaki Kuriyama), a stylist who is taking care of Mami (Miku Satô), the eight-year-old daughter of her irresponsible sister, Kiyomi (Tsugumi). The staff of the salon are impressed by the quality of Yamazaki’s extensions, but the employee who tries them on is killed later that night: the dead girl has a score to settle with society, and her hair is able to control the minds of those who wear it, sharing her horrible experience on the operating table, before committing murder from beyond the grave. Yamazaki’s infatuation with the hair of Yuko and Mami places them in danger, while Sono has macabre fun with his main prop: hair sprouts from eyes and mouths, holds police detectives captive, and slices with the severity of a very sharp knife.
As with his subsequent ‘true crime’ stories Cold Fish (2010) and Guilty of Romance (2011), which favoured narratives of transgression over accurate dramatisation of the facts, Exte finds Sono demonstrating a general disregard for the genre in which he is operating: this is ostensibly a horror film, yet the director spends as much time exploring the fractured family unit as he does staging the requisite shocking set pieces. Mami is a neglected child, and possibly a victim of abuse: the sadistic Kiyomi uses Mami as a means of accessing her sister’s apartment to steal food and raid the wardrobe for new clothing, while treating her daughter as a punching bag when her mood swings. Sono also throws in enough darkly humorous details and lines of dialogue to suggest that he does not take the genre as seriously as his contemporaries: the name of the salon is Gilles de Rais, a reference to the 15th-century French mass murderer, and lines like ‘My nose hair’s out of control lately’ openly acknowledge the ridiculous nature of the premise. Even some of the expository exchanges are played for knowing laughs, such as Yuko’s conversations with her roommate. However, there are some very strange special effects to satisfy gore-hounds, with hair shooting out from a woman’s head, attaching to the ceiling, then lifting her up before dropping its victim to her death. Exte would be immediately overshadowed by the epic satire of Love Exposure (2008), but it remains a typically subversive, and occasionally brilliant, Sono experience.