Interview: Sensei Sono Sion Talks RED POST ON ESCHER STREET
When Sono Sion broke out into international acclaim at 40 years old for his attention-grabbing cult favorite, Suicide Club, in 2001, his success may have seemed sudden. But when looking over his life’s work of almost impossibly immense output, it becomes clear that Sono, more than anyone else I can think of, proves the old adage that it takes 10-15 years to become an overnight success.
While he spent his 20s primarily coming from a place of poetry, midway through the 80s, Sono began adapting his words into imagery through introductory experimental short films, like 1985’s I Am Sono Sion. By his 30s, he began making small scale features such as The Room, an aggressively minimal work which would earn him some early acclaim and his first invitation to the Sundance Film Festival, but would do little to inspire backing for future cinematic endeavors.
And so began his days as a starving screenwriter feverishly writing screenplays he could never dream of making in his anonymity, but which would later turn into huge successes, and an uncontainably pent up underground new wave filmmaker, which is where and when things got really interesting. Similar to his 80s days of melding poetry with cinema, Sono spent a lot of the 90s interested in the power of numbers, utilizing masses of people for situational performance art via a daring collective called 'Tokyo GAGAGA', and incorporating the new medium into his increasingly radical cinematic pursuits, especially for Japan.
The climax of his underground energy reached its boiling point with Suicide Club, when Sono staged his most daring piece of performance art to date; organizing the faux mass cult suicide of 50 school girls in Shinjuku Station and committing the realtime chaos such an act would ensure onto celluloid. The film, a hypnotizing cult enigma, proved so thought-provoking, it would raise Sono`s face above the crowd and into Japanese cinema history, henceforth affording him the opportunities to realize any aesthetic whimsy of his choosing.
And so began the career that most people think about when they think about Sono Sion; a wildly active lit-filmmaker, who had he instead chosen to write novels, would have written bulbous epics. As it went, his interior life is now smeared across a canvas of film, the medium he landed on to hash out the subjects and paradoxes occupying his restless mind (groupthink, individuality, brainwash, religion, cult, purity, perversion, innocence, passion, corruption, extinction, to name a few) which he would do in larger and larger scale productions, almost racing the clock to express all he has to say before his time is up. Or maybe he’s just been devoting his life to the strongest force keeping him alive.
These days, or perhaps I should say in the days before the pandemic changed days as we once knew them, with the muse of a class full of wide-eyed students calling him sensei, the seasoned filmmaker seems to be looking back to the fires of his own youth. And what, by god, does Sono Sion have to teach to the impressionable proteges at the outset of finding their own creative voices? The answer may very well be contained within (one of) his new film(s), Red Post On Escher Street, which I recently came to learn through conversing with Sono via Zoom, acted as his class’ graduation curriculum.
Currently streaming for only a few days more at the Japan Society and Agency for Cultural Affairs' 21st Century Japan: Virtual Program and coming soon to Berlin Critics’ Week, Red Post on Escher Street tells the story of the casting of a low-budget indie, helmed by a maverick filmmaker looking to return to his no-budget roots of underground filmmaking. The premise of the film-within-a-film, entitled ‘Mask’, is vaguely disastrous; the kind Godzilla-director Ishirō Honda, master of hysterical-crowd control, would have excelled at directing. This is, of course, a skill shared by Sono who is no stranger to organizing massive herds of faces.
All we really know about ‘Mask’ is that it features a lot of extras, and if the films’ hopeful starlets fail to stand out from the crowd landing themselves leading roles, they will dissolve into the production’s background, and metaphorically speaking, into the background of life. Before this can be determined through the highly judgemental act of auditioning, each applicant will deposit their hopes and dreams into a little red mailbox on a rural road called 'Escher Street', likely named after an elder artistic influence associated with infinity.
Within this framework, we’re treated to a plethora of fresh raw-talents pouring their hearts out for Sono’s demanding lens, in an effort to transcend the sea of faces engulfing them in crowd shots and shining a light on what they have to offer when pushed to their wits’ end. It’s a film about process that takes us into the guts of what artistic expression means to Sono Sion, an aged sensei who long ago ripped off his mask and dove into a lifelong quest to impose his fantasy onto an unsatisfying reality, like his heroes before him.
Above all else, Red Post on Escher Street implies an acting workshop hellbent on abolishing acting, instead championing truth as a means of breaking through the constraints of one’s reality and claiming the lead in his/her own life. Like an impassioned call to action, Sono’s academic final project not only makes for one helluva a graduation speech, but one of his most inspiring works to date in its meditation on the aesthetic continuum of life and time.
Sono’s soulfully cathartic lessons may make for an extreme education, but it's the only one he has to hand down. To the right pupil, it will be worth everything. And that’s what it’s all about.
ScreenAnarchy: You are somebody who has made so many films with large crowds of people - I believe BAD FILM alone has 2,000 people in it - and you’re able to create all these great characters out of real people. I can’t imagine how you find them all. So I am wondering what inspired you to make a film about casting and ‘faces in crowds’ at this point in your career?
Sono Sion: This film is unlike my other films. I run a workshop where I teach acting. There are 50 students and they all appear in this film. So those who pursued an acting career were cast in this film.
What is your process like working with amateurs and carving out really unique performances? Bringing them into your world?
I wanted to make a film that my students could learn from, acquire hands-on experience, as I realized that teaching at the workshop isn't sufficient. In that sense, this is like a graduation project created together with my students. So my intention wasn't really making this film to play in the theatre but to support my students for their careers.
Did it remind you of your early days of no-budget filmmaking? Working with real people rather than professional actors?
Yes. It is a DIY film so it reminded me of the early days when I used to make DIY films.
I really love when you make films about filmmaking because even with something as outrageous as THE FOREST OF LOVE they can’t help but feel a bit spiritually autobiographical. I think my favorite example might be in WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL when fantasy literally wages war against reality. And wins! For this reason I find the reality scene in RED POST ON ESCHER STREET to be very beautiful. I feel like fantasy is crashing onto the streets of Shibuya, imposing itself on reality, encouraging the masses to rise above the faceless.
For the ending scene, I wanted it to end as a documentary rather than a fiction. There were no extras. I filmed real passersby expressing real emotion.
It kind of reminded me of Tokyo GAGAGA.
Yes, yes, yes! Of course. Exactly…Red Post on Escher Street is done in a documentary-like fashion, but I could also say it is a documentary. You can see this in the audition scenes, where amateur actors/actresses enthusiastically introduce themselves to the audience. In a way it's their own documentary.
There’s a philosophy expressed by a character in ESCHER STREET about how the most interesting art happens when you are pushed to the limit. Yasuko has a monologue about adapting to living on the edge. She says ‘only once you are at your wits’ end can you say something awesome’. I love that scene.
Sure. I love the idea also. That’s why I shoot films in this way at times. For example, my debut film, Suicide Club. There is a scene where 50 high school girls kill themselves by jumping in front of a train at Shinjuku Station. We cast real people and shooting took place at a real station. That’s quite unusual. It is similar to Tokyo GAGAGA in a way. I place great value on documentaries and random events.
SUICIDE CLUB strikes me as an extension of your Tokyo GAGAGA phase in your life. It's similar in that you are again staging something massive and radical. SUICIDE CLUB in retrospect seems to me to be a fictional story about what you were already doing documentary style. Is that true?
You’ve had much greater filmmaking resources since then. Do you prefer high budgets over low budgets?
I would like to continue making both high-budget films and small-budget films like DIY. But since I usually make low-budget films, one day I would like to try one as big as Star Wars.
What’s more dangerous - shooting with no money or shooting with tons of money?
I would say high-budget films are always more risky as expenses are high, whereas low-budget films are not.
Does that mean your cheaper films are more free?
Of course. Definitely more easygoing. Bigger films have more money but less freedom. There are many producers involved in the production and they all have things to say so you’re constantly being monitored/censored.
(Red Post on Escher Street) was easier to deal with and I had so much fun.
Do you still get high making movies? Does making cinematic poetry still thrill you as much as it used to?
Yes. And I would like it to stay that way. But I feel it's hard to keep the same level of passion.
I could be totally off but the name of your director character, Kobayashi, sounds like Obayashi. Is there an homage there? Are you a fan?
Of Obayashi Nobuhiko? Of course I like him! I am his pupil. I highly appreciate Mr. Obayashi because I got into this industry because of him.
One of the things your careers have in common is that you both like to make all sorts of different kinds of movies and a lot of them. You are not concerned with perfection or spoiling your track record in terms of which projects you choose, you just want to keep trying to make different kinds of movies, I think.
No, thank you!