Over the last five years or so, it seems that Japanese auteur Sion Sono has been unstoppable. His run of nearly perfect films began back in 2008 with the epic Love Exposure, and has seen not a single hiccup in quality since then. Can a director who created such a singular piece of genius as Love Exposure really have anywhere to go? In my opinion, the answer was yes, and he shows us as much with Himizu, what I might consider his finest work to date.
Himizu is loosely based on a manga of the same name. Sono had already written a script with the manga in mind when, shortly before shooting was to begin, the tragic Tsunami of 2011 struck northern Japan and left the entire country rattled in a way that they hadn't suffered since the dropping of the atom bombs in 1945. Sono decided that he couldn't, in good conscience, make a new film without addressing the issues of fragility and identity brought to the fore by this natural disaster.
The result of Sono's efforts is a stunning treatise on the nature of self-worth and the values that truly bind a culture. His extension of the characters into this post-3/11 world, even as they shot less than two months after the incident, shows an ability to reflect and process the impact on a nation's psyche that is well thought out and uncharacteristically optimistic, though certainly not out of line with Sono's typical sensibilities.
Young Sumida lives with his mother and together they run a boat house whose business has been decimated by the tsunami. Around Sumida has gathered a community of displaced acquaintances and friends who become family. The group, some single men and one couple, turn to Sumida as their communal son when his mother runs off with a man leaving Sumida alone in the boat hut with nothing but his long-gone father's debts to pay. When Sumida drops out of school to support himself, he is joined by a classmate named Keiko, who has a crush on him and wants to take care of him and encourage him to succeed. Keiko has her own darkness to deal with, but she, too, pins her hopes on Sumida, who becomes a symbol for the seething rage that can break loose when civil society begins to break down in the wake of the disaster.
Even though Himizu is only half the length of Love Exposure, Sono manages to hit all of his key thematic points with no problem. In spite of the violence, the anger, the madness, and the despair in Himizu, the true moral of the story is extremely optimistic, and this is where I think Sono turns a corner as a filmmaker and a human. As brilliant as Sono's work has been in the last few years, there has been an underlying vein of misanthropy and a less hidden (and even more disturbing) vein of misogyny running through his work. Himizu takes that Sono norm and turns it on its head, and in the most touching and heartbreaking way possible.
As Sumida's misfortune takes increasingly tragic turns, and his life becomes more and more hollow, it is the people around him that keep him going. He resists, he fights back, and he abuses those who support him, but they don't give up on him, and that makes all the difference. The direct metaphorical connection between the tragic circumstances in Japan at the time and Sumida's increasingly desperate situation is very clear, and Sono uses this film as a plea to his countrymen; be good, be kind, and be present. The only thing that can save Sumida is the common humanity of his neighbors, those people who are bound together by shared an unspoken love for one another.
I'm sure that someone out there will call me on this. Love Exposure is an incredible film, and one that many people, including me, have a lot of love for. To take the position that it isn't the best Sono film is probably not a popular decision, but my heart tells me it is the right one for me. I'm also fairly certain that my opinion of Sono's treatment of mankind in general as a thing with which to be disgusted and disappointed will spark some debate, however, I think that proof is in the pudding if you just go back and look. Himizu marks a huge milestone for Sono, it's as though he's grown up and realizes that he no longer has to be the angry young man to get anyone to listen. Well, the world is listening, and Himizu is a beautiful song.
I was a bit wary of this release, but it turns out that Himizu looks and sounds incredible. The image's digital origins are easily detected by the more eagle-eyed viewers, but the cinematography is fantastic and the film looks amazing. No issues with that or the fantastic audio track which is laced with classical music that sounds gorgeous. Best of the year stuff.
Third Window have ported over several extras from the Japanese release of the film onto a separate DVD and included one exclusive piece that proves very interesting. First up is about thirty minutes of deleted scenes, each given context and subtitles. These scenes to compliment the action of which they are a part in the film, but none really stands out as a piece that will be missed. Next up is an hour and fifteen minute making of featurette which takes us from the script stage to the wrap party with interviews of each of the primary cast and crew as well as supporting actors, most of whom are Sono veterans. Very interesting stuff. The exclusive piece of this set is a twenty minute interview with supporting actor Denden, who played Murata in Cold Fish and portrays a gangster here. Denden is very forthright about his experiences with Sono and gives a few tidbits here and there that are very interesting. I think this probably could have been edited down a bit, but I'm not going to complain loudly. The extras wrap up with trailers for Himizu and other Third Window releases.
I cannot recommend this film enough, if you are in the UK, Europe, or Australia OR are capable of playing Region B Blu-ray discs, you must see Himizu, and the Blu-ray is impeccable. Highly recommended.
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