Film Review: Sion Sono’s “Guilty of Romance”

“Guilty of Romance,” a film by the provocative, iconoclastic Japanese auteur Sion Sono, originally premiered at Cannes Directors Fortnight in 2011, and was the third of Sono’s so-called “Hate Trilogy,” after “Love Exposure” (2009) and “Cold Fish” (2010). Like “Cold Fish,” “Guilty of Romance” is inspired by a true crime case, in this instance, one that occurs in Maruyama-cho, the love hotel district of Shibuya, Tokyo. A gruesome murder and dismemberment found in one of the hotels is the focal point around which revolve the stories of three women in which sexuality, violence, and garish, lurid, neon colors abound.

The narrative of “Guilty of Romance” is structured as five chapters, appropriately for the literary tropes used in the film. It begins with Kazuko (Miko Mizuno), who leaves from a night with her lover in a cheap love motel, called onto the scene of another love hotel in the same district, where a murder victim has been discovered. The body has been dismembered to create two separate corpse figures, with mannequin parts stitched together with the human pieces. The grotesquerie of the image is enhanced by the maggots that writhe in between the stitches.

The investigation leads to the intertwined stories of two women, related in flashbacks. The first we encounter is Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), who is a housewife married to a novelist (Kanji Tsuda) who writes erotic novels, who gives passionate readings of them to large, appreciative female audiences. However, in sharp contrast to the wild scenes of his fiction, his home life he demands of Izumi is oppressively ordered and regimented. Izumi’s husband leaves home and returns at precisely the same time each day, and Izumi must have everything precisely in its place for him; recurring shots of Izumi placing her husband’s shoes in exactly the same position is perfectly symbolic of this.

All of this, along with the fact that Izumi and her husband seem to have little semblance of a sex life, makes for a very unfulfilling existence. To alleviate this routine, Izumi takes a part time job at a supermarket, where she hawks sausages to the patrons. The sexual connotations of this are quite obvious, and they quickly become literalized when one day Izumi is scouted at the supermarket by a woman looking for models for photo shoots. Soon these shoots become nude shoots, leading to pornography, and eventually to prostitution. However, Izumi continues to attempt to maintain her home life with her husband and tries to keep up with this dual life. Although it would seen that Izumi is a victim of exploitation, it’s not quite that simple; the pornography and prostitution has also in a sense liberated her from the prison of submission to her husband, and has allowed her to gain confidence in herself and the sexual power she has over men, where she sells sausages at the supermarket with as much gusto as she sells her body to men on the street.

Izumi’s sexual transformation is hastened when she encounters Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), a university professor who doubles as a nocturnal prostitute, who also becomes a mentor to Izumi, connecting her literary theories to her ideas concerning demanding money from men for sex when there is no love involved. Mitsuko has a quite twisted family history which has sent her down her chosen path.

The stories of Izumi and Mitsuko, as well as Kazuko’s murder investigation, go through very elaborate twists and turns, which don’t resolve themselves very neatly or even coherently. This is most likely a function of the fact that “Guilty of Romance” is being released in the U.S. in a shortened version that reportedly eliminates much of the detective’s story to focus more on Izumi and Mitsuko. But Sono is clearly less interested in the mystery aspects of the story – and more interested in the intricately ornate psychological and sexual aspects of the story – and his stylishly noirish atmospherics, as well as the spirited performances by his actors, serve him quite well. In “Guilty of Romance,” Sono has delivered one of his most accomplished films, as darkly beautiful as it is deeply disturbing.

“Guilty of Romance” is now playing in New York at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, along with “Himizu,” another 2011 film by Sion Sono. For more information on both films, and to purchase tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s website.