Though it caps off an informal trilogy, Guilty of Romance is as good an entry point into the wild filmography of Japanese director Sion Sono as any. You can even glean a certain understanding of the man from the opening scene, of a detective, Kazuko (Miki Mizuno), having sex against steamy shower glass before being called to a crime scene filled with neon splatter, kanji written in blood, and mutilated corpses stitched together with doll parts. But the film’s true provocation lies not in this gory framing device, but in the flashbacks that show what led to this gruesome murder.
Like much of the director’s work, the film is divided into chapters, a literary conceit befitting Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), the wife of a famous author (Kanji Tsuda) whose conservative behavior reduces his spouse to an unpaid servant. Izumi also narrates her own story in the form of a diary, though some shots of her daily routine—like those of her precisely arranging her husband’s slippers—are so objectively rigid that one can practically hear an omniscient third person describing them. Wasting away at home alone, Izumi takes a job at a grocery store, where an agent recruits her for a modeling job that soon turns into a nude shoot.
The narrative rapidly escalates from here, jumping from nude modeling to adultery and paid sex work, and ordinarily this exaggerated cause and effect would smack of sexist alarmism. But the film matches this narrative arc with Izumi’s increasing self-confidence. Sono has never been shy about exploiting T&A, but he follows up the scene of Izumi uncomfortable with the shoot with one of her standing nude in front of a full-length mirror, the camera pulled back as she admires her features as if discovering her own body for the first time. In a refutation of the usual moral arcs ascribed to “fallen women,” the deeper Izumi gets into sex work, the happier and more fulfilled she becomes. She’s egged on by Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), a literature professor who doesn’t so much moonlight as a sex worker as assumes her true identity at night. Mitsuko teaches Izumi to prize her body for its attractiveness and its profitability, countering not only the mainstream view of sex work as debasement, but even the condescending attitudes of left-leaning filmmakers who see prostitution as the tragic, logical endpoint of predatory capitalism.
As a wanton stylist with a love for bizarre, overwhelming imagery over narrative or thematic cohesion, Sono has always resembled Seijun Suzuki the most of any classic Japanese director. But in charting and contrasting the affairs of Izumi, Mitsuko, and Kazuko, this film edges closer to the work of Nagisa Oshima, specifically In the Realm of the Senses. Like that film, Guilty of Romance takes a frank look at sexual exploration as a reaction against Japan’s patriarchal, self-denying culture and, ultimately, a product of it. However, where Oshima’s film made its acts of violence part of its expression of love, the brutality that bookends Sono’s film is nothing more than punishment for that expression, a too-common resolution for these kinds of stories. Nonetheless, Guilty of Romance is one of Sono’s more powerful statements, and a fitting conclusion for a trilogy preoccupied with questions of authority and self-actualization in a society that evolves quickly, but can never outpace its deeply embedded flaws.
This Olive Films Blu-ray comes with a stable transfer that preserves the slickness of the film’s neon-lit streets and icily bright daylight shots, as well as the grimier textures of the love hotels where the action eventually moves. Audio is similarly unimpeachable, if not exactly revelatory, dutifully controlling the film’s occasional spikes of volume while devoting most of the aural space to the dialogue in the front channel.
Olive’s disc arrives bereft of extras, like many of their releases.
The conclusion of Sion Sono’s Hate trilogy gets a reliably barebones but sturdy home-video release from Olive Films.