Director of Chaos

Director of Chaos

After tantalizing Japanese audiences in films like Suicide Club and Love Exposure, director Sion Sono makes his scariest move yet: a big-budget Hollywood production


Originally published on on June 2009

Sion Sono in Tokyo, May 21, 2009.<br>Photograph by Benjamin Parks

Sion Sono in Tokyo, May 21, 2009.
Photograph by Benjamin Parks

Filmmaker Sion Sono has been on a shock-provoking roll since the opening scene of his 2001 cult hit Suicide Club, which depicts 54 uniformed schoolgirls, hand-in-hand, cheerfully jumping in the path of a Tokyo subway train. With hip, sexy, cerebral and disturbing films like Strange Circus (2005), Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005) and Hair Extensions (2007), Sono has continued to delight and challenge film fans at home and abroad—including a few internationally alert LA producers.

This summer, Sono will travel to Norway to begin work on his first Hollywood film, Lords of Chaos. Based on Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s 1998 book of the same name, the movie depicts the violence surrounding the Norwegian black metal subculture of the early ’90s. The scene grew increasingly out of hand as its members delved into Satanism and church burnings, culminating in the stabbing to death of Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth, a.k.a. “Euronymous”. Aarseth’s band mate Varg Vikernes was convicted of the crime and served 15 years in prison.

That Sono, 47, has involved himself in what will undoubtedly be a highly scrutinized film—black metal blogs are already heaping scorn on the idea that an outsider can make an insightful movie about their scene—shouldn’t surprise those familiar with his career as a risk-taking and boundary defying artist. The director actually began his career as a poet, and by the age of 17 his work had appeared in publications like Eureka and The Modern Poem Book. Not content with the level of mischief he was able to stir up by his early films, Sono returned to verse in the mid-’90s with Tokyo GAGAGA, a 2,000 member guerilla performance of street poetry in Shibuya and Shinjuku that appeared to onlookers as a political rally for an unfathomable cause. Sono’s need for motion and upheaval extends to his personal life as well: though he’s lived in Tokyo for decades, the director moves to a different area of the city once a year.

Lords of Chaos marks the first time Sono will work with a script that didn’t originate from his own imagination. Yet the film will continue his preoccupation with dark themes and tortured spirits. Fans who wonder how such a disturbing body of work squares with Sono’s childhood in idyllic Aichi Prefecture need only hear the filmmaker’s account of his days as a teenage runaway in Tokyo.

When Sono arrived in the big city for the first time in the late ’70s, he sat on a park bench near Tokyo station and plotted his next move. As it began to get dark, he was approached by a woman in her 30s who asked him to spend the night with her in the closest possible hotel. “I was a virgin. I thought, ‘Oh my God! Tokyo is a very, very strange world!’”

Unfortunately, the night progressed far differently than the nervous boy could have imagined.

“As soon as we came into the room, she pulled out a big pair of scissors,” he recalls. “‘Actually, I want to die’ she said. ‘I want to die now, but I didn’t want to be alone, so I was looking for someone to die with.’ So I said ‘Please, please don’t kill me. I’ll do anything for you if you don’t kill me.’ She said, ‘Come with me to my hometown tomorrow and pretend to be my husband in front of my mother. You can stay with us in the countryside.’”

Sono played along and wound up staying with the strange pair for a few weeks before deciding it was best to go back to Tokyo. His “wife” gave him about ¥30,000 and wished him well. “My virginity was still intact,” he says with a laugh.

Suicide Club

Suicide Club

Arriving back in Tokyo, Sono caught an encore screening of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The film had a profound effect on him. “I’ve never forgotten this movie. Perhaps if I had watched it in another situation, it wouldn’t have impacted me as much, but at the time I was lonely and wondering whether or not I was a criminal.”

Soon Sono’s money ran out. He was hungry and homeless, and before long he found himself recruited into a cult.

“At the station, a guy asked me if I believed in God. I figured if I told him I believed in God, he’d give me some food. I was starving. He took me to the church and we ate lunch.”

Sono cleaned the church and attended the sermons in order to continue eating, though he often found it hard not to laugh at the unconvincing cult leader who claimed to be God. As with the woman and her mother in the countryside, he reached a point when he thought it best to move along.

“One day I got out. A believer saw me, an older woman. I was scared she’d call someone, but she smiled and said, ‘Itterasshai.’ She believed I’d come back someday. I was out, but I was still afraid of the cult. I was convinced they’d catch me. It was only about 100 people at the time, but it’s since become very famous and strong. Later that year, a letter from them arrived at my parents’ home in Toyokawa. I have no idea how they knew my address.”

The fear of cult members on his trail led Sono to seek safety in an equally self-protective unit: a communist group protesting the opening of a second terminal at Narita Airport. The activists were happy to have another able-bodied young man at their rallies, which had begun to attract the national riot police.

“I went into the group, and the cult never came after me, so the plan was a success. But now there was a new problem. We fought against the riot police all day, every day. It was very painful. I had no [political] beliefs, but I was taking these beatings just to get food. It was crazy.” Sono finally had enough of the struggles and decided to make his way back to his worried family in Aichi.

Suicide Club DVD cover

Suicide Club DVD cover

Fans of Sono’s movies won’t have to stretch their imaginations to see the influence these adventurous months had on the artist—suicide pacts, bogus family members, cults, violence and wayward teens have all run rampant through his films over the years. And the director says the future holds more of the same.

“Every time I sit down to write the next script, I remember everything from that time and draw on it in a new way. If I had just stayed within my normal life, I wouldn’t have had this. It was good. It was an education.”

Not a fan of black metal himself, Sono prefers Mahler, Beethoven and Mozart. He agreed to make the Lords of Chaos movie after reading the book, but he felt the original script was a bit too esoteric, too “metalhead,” and rewrote it hoping to stress the universal aspects of the story. But don’t expect a watered-down version of events: the director will build and burn down five churches while the cameras roll. Adding another element of danger is the recently paroled Vikernes, who has made death threats against anyone involved in the film.

Asked if these threats worried him, Sono says, “A little, but the more dangerous a project, the more interesting it is for me. This threat is proof to me that the film is contemporary, up-to-date.” Jackson Rathbone, best known as Jasper Hale in the enormously popular teen vampire flick Twilight, has been tapped to play the role of Vikernes.

So why is a classical music lover attracted to such a story? “Many of today’s criminal acts by young people appear to have no specific reason or motive. Like Columbine, for example, normal people couldn’t understand why they did it. So I feel the acts portrayed in the film are relevant to young people everywhere.”

Sono doesn’t buy the simple solution that contemporary youth are reckless and act without thinking. “Mayhem’s members were not foolish people,” he says. “They had intelligence and they were thinking about many things. I want to show this.” The director contends that he hopes to make a film that’s not merely nostalgic for black metal fans, but gives insight into the minds of young people who are led to extreme actions. “It’s similar to Suicide Club in that everyone is disappointed in the end.”

Originally embracing the idea of being the only Japanese crew member on set, Sono has decided to bring along a trusted compatriot cameraman. “My style is strange. If a foreign cameraman couldn’t understand my style, I’d be worried. Everything about this project is challenging for me: the actors are foreigners, almost all the staff are foreigners, the producers are foreigners. The language and cultural differences are very challenging. I want one thing not to be challenging: I need a cameraman who understands me.”

Initially, making a Hollywood movie wasn’t a goal for Sono, but he became intrigued by the reactions of foreign audiences to his films. “My movies are very dangerous and weird in Japan. The people here think, ‘he’s a weird director; he’s crazy; he’s a pervert,’ but Strange Circus won an audience prize at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival. It seems in Berlin, my movies aren’t especially weird—regular people like them.” A bizarre tale of incest, self-mutilation, and chainsaw-wielding revenge, Strange Circus was perhaps too much for tearjerker-adoring Japanese audiences.

Sono made a further impression at this year’s Berlin Film Festival with Love Exposure, a portrayal of a young man with an exceptional talent for snapping “up-skirt” photos of women he passes on the street. Sono describes the movie as a corpus of the recurring themes within his work over the last ten years: troubled families, cults and eroticism, mixed together in a nabe ryori of Hong Kong action, art house, car action, pink film-infused entertainment. Love Exposure took home the Caligari Film Award (honoring unconventional films) and the FIPRESCI Prize (honoring films that promote new and young cinema).

Even with his success in Berlin three years earlier, Sono wasn’t sure what people there would make of the film.

“I’m a sarcastic person,” he reflects. “The people in Berlin seemed very happy watching my movie. Everyone told me how much they liked it, but I didn’t entirely believe them. I thought it was all part of the format. I didn’t believe they were sincere until I was already back in Japan and got a call on my cellphone telling me the film had won two awards.”