August 4th, 2011 | Interviews

Illustration by Steven Fiche

Director Sion Sono started out as a poet and staged guerrilla experimental poetry street performances with his Tokyo GAGAGA collective before making films about brutal murders, twisted families, and demonic hair. His latest film Cold Fish, a twisted tale about a struggling fish store owner who falls into the dark orbit of a rich, charismatic—and murderous—owner of a successful high-end fish shop, screens at Cinefamily this weekend. He’s also in production on his first English-language film, Lords of Chaos, which follows the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990s—a scene which spawned a wave of murders and church burnings across the country. He speaks here about crime and creativity, pervert power, and his own cult experiences. This interview by Lainna Fader.

The serial murders that drive the plot of Cold Fish were over dogs in real life, but in Cold Fish, your characters are murdering over tropical fish
—why did you change dogs to fish for the film?
I thought fish would be visually beautiful, and I kind of liked the fact that those tropical fish can be surprisingly dangerous in spite of their visual beauty. I thought it could be a good theme for the movie. A realistic movie like Cold Fish has to be depicted beautifully. If it’s a fantasy, I pay a lot of attention to colors—how to use colors beautifully.
You’ve said you’ve always loved films but felt you were too shy and withdrawn to actually make movies. How did you overcome that?
I started out as a poet, writing poems, but then I stopped doing it. It was boring to write on a piece of paper, so I wrote my poems on different surfaces—on the street walls, lavatory walls, and such—and shoot them with an 8mm camera. And soon I turned the camera on me, shooting myself reading poems as well. So I started making films without even knowing I did at all.
After working in film for a couple decades, do you think you’re better suited to being a filmmaker rather than just a writer?
Next year, I will start over as a poet, once again. I’d like to shoot a film and write poems. I want to do all kinds of things.
You said that with Love Exposure—a four-hour epic about love, lust, religion, cults, guilt, and revenge—your ‘shell exploded’ and now you have no more love nor hope nor god, and all you have is sadness, despair, and darkness. Did working on Cold Fish cheer you up?
Depending on the situation I am in at any given time of my life, my movies become completely different. When I made Love Exposure, I was very much in love. And I filmed Cold Fish when life felt extremely disappointing for me. So, you see, it all depends on the circumstances. And I am happy now.
Are you more attracted to the brutality of the murders in your films, or the artfulness of the murders? What’s the overlap between crime and creativity?
I’ll give you a hint. If I see blood—real blood—I would be shocked and disgusted, but I love blood if I see it in the movies. The crimes committed in the movies are such creative trickery that I enjoy them very much. I would hate the crime in reality, but I love to commit—create—crimes if it’s in the movie world.
How much of Love Exposure comes from your own experiences?
The film is based mainly on a true story, an experience of a friend of mine. He is a real pervert, you see. He loves sneaking shots inside skirts. And it is a fact that his sister actually joined a cult and he did take her back with his own hands, with his pervert power.
How can you use pervert power to rescue someone from a cult?
The funny part of it is that my friend persuaded his sister saying, ‘Come back to my world’—meaning ‘get out of the cult back into the “normal” world—but I know him well enough to know that ‘my world’ in his case is the world of perverts! The cult may be weird, but he is just as weird. That’s the funny part of it all.
The Zero church in the film is a highly structured corporate-like cult—why would someone want to join a cult like that? What are they looking for?
They all say they are in search of God, but I think they are actually looking for something else—happiness, or a ‘connection,’ so to speak. In Japan, all kinds of connections and relationships are falling apart, including family ties. You can’t trust your own father. Nor your mother. Who can you trust, then? You need something or someone else. That’s where a cult comes in, as a link or circle that one can belong to—as a kind of replacement for family.
Why are family relations in Japan so weak these days?
Well, how are they in America?
I wouldn’t say they’re breaking down necessarily—there’s a wide variety. The extremes balance each other out.
In a way, Japan is more or less the same, I think. I hope I am not creating bad impressions of Japanese people by saying these things about them. I am not saying that Japan has lost it all, obviously—what I mean is that the loss of connections—family ties and human relationships can clearly be perceived as a phenomenon—not that Japanese people are all fallen apart in a mess.
You’ve said you’re in the Jesus Christ fan club—but not a fan of Jesus Christ. Why?
I find Jesus Christ very interesting purely as a person, just like I find John Lennon very interesting. I may not join Beatles Fan Club, but that does not mean that I am not a Beatles fan. It’s not like one has to be a member of Beatles Fan Club to be a Beatles fan. Same thing should apply to Jesus Christ.
Your first English-language film is Lords of Chaos, which follows the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990s, a scene which spawned a wave of murders and church burnings across the country. Why did you want to make a film about that story?
I thought that it was an event that truly represented all the themes I had worked on in the past. It’s about the boys who burned down the church to the ground. The irony I find very interesting in it is that they actually believed so much in God that they had to do that. They hated God so much that they burned down the church, but the flip side of the coin is that they would not have done it unless they believed in God so much. You can’t hate a God you don’t believe in, and I don’t think there are many people who believe in God as much as they did, to be able to hate God so much. One does NOT resort to such drastic measure of action for something one doesn’t believe in.
Varg Vikernes—who was convicted of the stabbing of metal band Mayhem’s guitarist Euronymous—has been opposed to the book and now to your movie, even threatening to kill you. How do you cope with such threats and do such events impact the filmmaking process?
I’m not worried. The film isn’t just about him—his opinion doesn’t matter to me.
You’ve called Ozu—one of the most revered directors in Japanese cinema historythe anti-Christ, the anti-God—why? How does Ozu’s legacy in Japan impact how you make films?
He is too much of a ‘god’ in Japanese movie history, and the history can not be refreshed unless we become anti-Ozu. I have nothing personal against him, but I have to declare I am anti-Ozu in order to move forward.
How’d you feel when people started drawing comparisons between his work and yours with family drama Be Sure To Share? What were the reactions like in Japan?
People told me that I grew up unexpectedly. I felt like making a ‘normal’ movie for a change, so I made one using standard, typical techniques, so to speak. It’s like a punk band covering a Frank Sinatra tune for a change.
I read about how when you ran away to Tokyo to 17, you met a woman in a park who wanted you to go with her to a hotel so she wouldn’t have to die alone. What did you think when she said those words to you?
I was afraid. For several years, I suffered from the trauma—kind of scared of women and all.
Did you think the woman was really going to kill you?
Yes. She had these gigantic scissors—shears. I really believed it.
And she agreed not to kill you if you pretended to be her husband?
Yes, that’s what happened. I went with her to see her family. I was so patient that I got awarded, as a gift, with some money to go back to Tokyo.
You said at the time you were lonely and wondering whether you were a criminal—what did you decide? And what did you mean when you said you’re ‘prepared’ to be a criminal? Do you think most people who commit crimes go into them feeling prepared to be criminals?
At that time when I was making Cold Fish, there was a possibility that things would get criminal right away, but now, after having made films such as Guilty of Romance and Mole, my heart is a little more peaceful now and I don’t feel that way at all. There are strange cases in this world. I did research when I made a movie called Suicide Club. People who commit suicides are not really prepared—they themselves don’t even know they are doing it until it happens. For instance, someone goes to a supermarket and buys something. While carrying it in a bag, this person suddenly feels like dying. Or someone is having a business meeting. In a corporate building. He walks out onto the veranda during the break. Then, huh? ‘Where is he?’ people ask. He is already gone. Some strange suicide cases happen like that, totally unprepared—totally without warning. Likewise, there must be criminals who commit crimes totally prepared.
When you came back to Tokyo, you’ve said you joined a cult so you could eat. Why did they still let you in when you said, ‘If I believe in your God will I stop being hungry’? Was it not important to them that you shared their beliefs?
It was when I had no money and I was hungry. At the station, if you told them you believed in God, you could get some food. It wasn’t so dangerous. Since that’s not something I could possibly believe in, I didn’t feel that I might be brainwashed so much anyway, regardless of the length of time I stayed there.
Why—and how—did you leave?
It was—well, kind of boring. So it wasn’t easy to stay there in that sense. And in order to get out of the place, I had to go to another powerful place—another cult.
That cult let you off the hook because you said you were joining an even bigger cult? How does that work?
I can’t really explain it without getting into a big trouble.
When you went to Berkeley, why did you only study B cinema?
Until then, I was a typical film student, so to speak, studying classics like Truffaut, Godard, Nouvelle Vague, American historical movies and such, but as I got to see tons of those vulgar, nasty movies in Berkeley, I realized that this was the kind of movie I had better be studying now. I got a chance to absorb and study the kind of movie I used to hate because of the nastiness of it.
You said Suicide Club is your B movie, and that the Japanese public should hate it—why did you hope the Japanese would hate it? Do you want to be hated?
My original intention was to make a movie to be detested. I always intended my first entertainment movie to be detested by people rather than entertaining people. ‘Amanojaku’ in Japanese is exactly what I am … How shall I put it in English? I can think of it only in Japanese. If, if, if the content of Suicide Club was something people would like—if everyone else was making movies similar to Suicide Club, I would have been making love romance movies. I just like to do things contrary to others.