Sion Sono’s “Shinjuku Swan” – 2015 Fantasia Film Review

One’s reaction to director Sion Sono’s “Shinjuku Swan” will likely be proportional to the degree to which he or she believes young women are able to both freely choose to be prostitutes and also be happy in their work.  Or perhaps it is proportional to his or her comfort level with being asked to believe this, not by a feminist female director, but by a male director often identified with exploitation.

Or maybe, like me, you recognize these as real issues, yet loved the film just the same.  Based on a manga series by Ken Wakui, “Shinjuku Swan” features Ayano Gô as Tatsuhiko, a dopey, yet infectiously likeable kid with a single “talent”: he won’t back down, nor retreat, from a fight no matter how terribly outnumbered or badly beaten he is.  Catching the attention of Mako (Iseya Yusuke), a charming and principled Captain with Shinjuku’s “Burst” gang, Tatsuhiko is recruited for work as a recruiter – or “scout” – a job that involves approaching young women on the street with sweet talk aimed at getting them to consider employment as a nightclub or massage parlor prostitute.

Hesitant at first, Tatsuhiko joins the crew only after being assured that not all prostitutes are victims, and – in fact – that many are very happy with their chosen work.  Accepting this, Tatsuhiko commits himself to making certain every girl he recruits remains a happy girl, his strategy seemingly being to fall in love with every other one.  Naturally, his efforts bring him very mixed results, more than once leading to heartbreak.

Further complicating Tatsuhiko’s efforts to spread love, peace and happiness, he unwittingly finds himself cast in the role of sacrificial pawn when a turf war flares up between “Burst” and the far less gentlemanly “Harlem” gang.  It is within this plot line that the film gets particularly, and creatively, brutal.  Another sub-plot finds Tatsuhiko – again unwittingly – cast by one of his prostitutes, Ageha (Erika Sawajiri), as an adorable storybook prince.  And then there’s the surprisingly underdeveloped story of Ryoko (Yû Yamada), as the sophisticated Madame who runs the most professional and caring of the sex-for-hire clubs.

As with many of director Sono’s works (at least four of which have already been released this year), there’s enough plot in “Shinjuku Swan” for three additional films.  Still, while this “Swan” exhibits ample fat for trimming (there’s one troubled prostitute too many, and worse, an expected reveal and subsequent resolution involving Tatsuhiko’s pre-existing relationship with a rival gang member comes off as awkward and rather silly), the film will not disappoint Sono’s fans.  Professionally shot and edited, with first class performances throughout, this is – of all of Sono’s releases in 2015 to date – the one he clearly took the most care with.

“Shinjuku Swan” received its International premiere at the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival on July 31.  For further information go to