From the title, image, and summary, I didn’t know what I was getting into with Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Jigoku de naze warui). All I knew was that Sono Sion directed it, and I’ve loved a few of his films. After watching this one, I’m going to go ahead and say he’s my favorite Japanese director, and one of my favorite directors, period. His films are demented and often fun. Even if I don’t 100% understand what’s happening, I still enjoy myself. I couldn’t explain Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table, or Strange Circus, but they’re visually striking, unique, and compelling enough that I don’t care. Maybe the fact that Sono’s also a poet comes through, and that’s part of what I respond to. A graduate professor of mine who taught screenwriting once told me that poets make better first-time screenwriters because they tend to think in image rather than narrative. Sono isn’t a first-time screenwriter, but however madcap his narratives are, their images sustain you.
On the Sono comprehensibility scale, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is closer to Love Exposure and Cold Fish. (Sidebar: Comprehensible to a Westerner like me; I’ve read discussions of his films by Japanese viewers or those who know more about Japanese culture, who are able to understand elements I may not.) This means the movie is insane, but you can follow the story line. It reminded me most strongly of Love Exposure, though I recognized some actors from Cold Fish, which I’d seen more recently (for the third time). There are elements of a strange romance (Mitsuko and Koji), undercut or put in quotes as are other story elements (yakuza feuds, action movies, film making). I like the women in Sono’s films; they’re fierce. Mitsuko is loved or idolized by Koji and rival yakuza leader, Ikegami, who meets her as a child. Like Koji, Ikegami knows Mitsuko’s TV commercial (which opens the movie);he has a huge picture of the adult Mitsuko on his wall, which is comically discovered later by her father during the final, big raid. It’s Koji and Mitsuko’s “romance” which resembles that of the two leads in Love Exposure: a prickly heroine and a boy who instantly falls in love; their paths cross by chance.
WDYPiH uses some of the same music as Cold Fish and snowballs in a similar fashion. I laughed at the absurd situations and violence or put my hands to my face because I couldn’t believe or was delighted by many moments.
In addition to the Koji-Mitsuko-Ikegami “love triangle,” there’s the foundational relationship between Mitsuki’s father, Muto, and his wife (I think), Shizue. We see Shizue being replaced as boss or hostess of/at a business owned by Muto; a new, younger woman and mistress is being brought in. Shizue doesn’t take it kindly. When rival yakuza come to her home looking for Muto, she takes out her rage on them, slaughtering all but Ikegami. She’s put in jail, and Muto thinks she’s risked her life for him. As she’s about to be released from prison some years later, Muto wants to do something for her. Mitsuko’s commercial was taken off the air because of her mother’s crime, and Muto’s kept her “career” as an actress going. However, in the middle of making a movie, MItsuko ran away with a guy. Muto goes crazy trying to get his daughter back and tries to persuade the director of the movie to wait (he can’t). As Mitsuko escapes, she chances upon an adult Koji (who’d seen her commercial as a child) and pays him to be her boyfriend for the day.
Parallel to the yakuza story is that of the “Fuck Bombers” (which never failed to make me laugh when shouted). In the past we see an excitable kid named Hirata and his amateur film crew (the Fuck Bombers) come across a fight between high school boys; they film it, and though they’re initially threatened, the delinquents eventually get into being filmed, and one, Sasaki, is identified by young director Hirata as a future action star, Japan’s Bruce Lee. They also happen upon Ikegami staggering back to base after his encounter with Shizue and Mitsuko. He lets them film him stumbling along, wounded, until he rounds the corner.
In the present, not much has changed for the Fuck Bombers. Hirata is still hoping to make One Great Picture. Sasaki is less enthused, still wearing his yellow Bruce Lee outfit. The movie theater where the group meets is out of business. There are girls hanging around, but they’re not impressed until an actual fight breaks out as Sasaki quits and attempts to leave (acting like an action star has comically given him actual martial arts skills).
There’s what I interpret as an anti-nostalgia (or anti-traditionalism) element to the movie. Hirata wants to make one movie, not a bunch made to earn money; he laments the current state of Japanese cinema. Ikegami, after his defeat in the past, orders his yakuza to eschew Western clothing; they must shave and wear kimono (plus Japanese-style sunglasses, whatever those are). No one’s exactly sane or admirable in this movie, so it may be less anti than pointing to the ridiculousness of all (or deconstructing the tropes used).
Koji tells Mitsuko he won’t run, but when her father’s men find them, he’s mistaken for the guy who Mitsuko originally ran away with that did flee (she hunts the latter down and puts beer bottle shards in his and her own mouth, kissing him). Muto is about to kill Koji, but Mitsuko saves him by saying he’s a director she wants to work with. Muto had already gotten the idea of making a movie with Mitsuko on his own for his wife and “negotiates” with Koji over the budget. As film equipment arrives at Muto’s headquarters and filming questions get more specific, Koji buckles under the pressure and runs. The yakuza catch up with him just as he reaches a place where people have tied their wishes, written on bits of paper. He vomits all over it, and a wish slips out; it’s Hirata’s wish to make a great film, from ten years before. Koji convinces the yakuza he needs this guy, and they find Hirata (on a disastrous date) and, with Mitsuko, ask him to make the movie. This is the moment Hirata’s been waiting for. They find Sasaki at work in a restaurant, and he comes along too. At first Hirata doesn’t get exactly what’s going on, but when he learns he’ll be working with real yakuza and filming a raid, he’s ecstatic. He comes up with a plan and talks with Ikegami (whom Hirata recognizes from their past encounter). It’s on.
What follows is the craziest guerilla filmmaking, with real fights (including Mitsuko, Koji, and Sasaki as participants) and deaths. Cameras, lighting, and booms are everywhere as the fighting spreads from room to room. Everyone dies (except Hirata, though he may still), either by katana at the start (Hirata says it’s more dramatic and traditional or quintessential) or gunfire when it erupts and when the police arrive. All the major characters get a moment, and in a crazy instance of meta, Mitsuko kills the yakuza surrounding her with one swing, music reminiscent of Kill Bill Vol. 1 playing. It’s a Japanese movie referencing an American movie that is itself an homage or nod to martial arts in a Japanese setting.
Koji is dealt what appear to be several deadly blows (e.g. a sword through his head), and his and Mitsuko’s tender moment is rudely interrupted by a yakuza. Koji keeps coming back, and when he’s about to do or say something dramatic, the cops shoot him down. Mitsuko’s heroic attacking stance is similarly halted.
Hirata’s “panning” cameraman literally dies in the act of filming, eye still to the camera. Hirata himself appears dead beside Sasaki, but makes his way around the scene, praising his dead crew and taking the 35mm film. He avoids the cops and escaping yakuza and runs down the streets, arms full of film, shouting, “Fuck Bombers!” ecstatically. In a final, ultra-meta gesture, we hear “cut,” and the actor playing Hirata jogs off camera, and we see crew emerging from the sidelines.