Death generally inspires complex feelings, a mingled combination of reverence, fear, contemplation, and sorrow, and the gradual death of film as a medium, at least for those with a vested interest in such matters, has occasioned both a wide range of thoughtful responses and a fair amount of perplexed hand-wringing. But neither of these topics seems to inspire much seriousness in Japanese wildman Sion Sono, as the incurably impertinent director blithely channels the demise of an art form into Why Don’t You Play in Hell, another madness-addled gorefest with a terminal lack of solemnity, a carnivalesque romp which turns the death drive into a berserk race toward doom. Full of characters provoked by passion and love to do some of the most horrible things imaginable, it has the ramshackle feel of a blowout comic spectacle, like a reimagining of Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World marked by a cornucopia of hacked-off limbs, rampant psychopathy, twisted sexual fetishism, and literal torrents of blood
Things kick off via a long extended prologue, charting the tenuous connections between a menacing child star, a yakuza boss, and a band of adolescent filmmakers who call themselves the Fuck Bombers. Not much has changed by the time of the film’s main section, which takes place 10 years later, and the resumption of old conflicts occurs swiftly, bringing these previously distinct parties into uncomfortably close contact. Motivated by the convergence of various deadlines and the desperation associated with a vanishing form, the yakuzas will soon be killing each other off in droves, their mounting war folded into the drama of a semi-fictional film directed by the Fuck Bombers, whose guerrilla shooting techniques prove the perfect match for this kind of grisly anarchy. The disparate groups are eventually forced into such close proximity to one another that the film enters the terrain of farce, the prospect of a concluding balancing resolution swapped out for one in which all characters are consumed by the same overwhelming wave of carnage.
There’s definitely something satisfying in the way so many different plot lines get fused into the same hopeless plunge into violence, but the consistently manic tone also makes for tedious viewing at times, everything pitched at the same frantic level of energy. As with many of Sono’s other films, Why Don’t You Play in Hell is set in a mirror world where seemingly no one is capable of behaving reasonably, and where the concept of characters as puppets of plot is exaggerated as a meta-textual joke rather than something to be downplayed. Yet unlike much of his work, in which hysterically motivated characters push along their more hesitant counterparts, the principals here are all possessed with a cartoonish amount of vigor; imagine a dozen Wile E. Coyotes all in search of their respective Roadrunner. The movie spends its first half putting its conflicts into place, devoting the second to an outpouring of turbulent destruction, with the filmmakers’ capturing of this destruction on clunky film equipment eventually fusing with the Grand Guignol climax, turning into its own spectacle of cleansing annihilation.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell ultimately lacks the careful complexity of the mammoth Love Exposure, which felt overstuffed at four hours, and which crafted another disreputable filmmaking metaphor that was just as campily tasteless, but more varied in its methods. Yet the full-tilt pursuit of chaos depicted here has its own singular momentum and an undeniable richness. Sono works best when his shattering of conventions is accompanied by equivalently unorthodox narrative structuring, and while the subversion which occurs in this case doesn’t have the same elegance he’s exhibited previously, it’s hard to disregard the film’s gleefully brimming weirdness. Refusing to mourn anything, displaying a Futurist-style disdain for the past, he imagines a world in which static adherence to old ideas leads directly to doom. Culminating with a grueling final bloodbath which draws on Kill Bill and The Sword of Doom before it, the film delights in blowing history to bits, forcing a Japanese Bruce Lee impersonator into fatal combat with standard-issue Yakuza gargoyles and a homicidal former child star, with a team of gun-toting filmmakers willing to commit mass murder to get the best shot. Merrily radical in his approach, Sono firmly establishes himself as an anti-Tarantino, an auteur who rejects the comfort of familiar structures and instead uses blood to wipe the slate clean, finding only the capacity for destruction in old ideas, so wholeheartedly occupied with the frenzied pursuit of new ones.