One hates to begrudge an artist the freedom to explore the possibilities of their medium, but a pair of films by two of Japan’s most aesthetically radical cult directors have given me pause. Known respectively as conjurers of kaleidoscopically risqué fantasias and severe J-horror parables, spiritual brothers-in-arms Sion Sono and Kiyoshi Kurosawa have recently begun experimenting with more conventional genres and modes of narrative presentation. Kurosawa was the first to make the move in 2008 with Tokyo Sonata, a quietly devastating film about economic hardship and familial strife. Besides succeeding marvelously on its own terms, it also proved that the transition from genre constructs to dramatic classicism could unfold rather seamlessly. Sono, meanwhile, has reached a dizzying level of creative drive over the last few years. Beginning in 2007 with his underground classic Love Exposure, Sono has pushed furiously against the tides of convention and good taste with such alternately invigorating and infuriating works as Cold Fish, Himizu, and Guilty of Romance.
Whether burnt out on provocation or simply curious to explore new territory, Sono has gone the Kurosawa route with his latest film, The Land of Hope, a topical drama that suggests he, unlike his contemporary, hasn’t yet established a handle on traditional narrative or the subtleties that work toward translating such classical tropes. Centering on a family forced to consider uprooting their lives at the risk of nuclear exposure in the wake of an earthquake which has sent a nearby power plant into a state of reactive disarray, the film finds Sono folding his subject and his thematic text together so naturally into his newly languid style that the two end up canceling each other out, flatlining what would otherwise be an impassioned polemic. Sono’s normally vivid compositional sense is thus rendered (save for a fiery, allegorical death sequence late in the film) bland and unmemorable, all grayscale hues and shallow, dimensionless visual planes. Considering Sono’s invigorating take on similar material with Himizu, this is an unfortunate result, particularly as many good performances go wasted. If this new sensibility is something Sono plans on carrying through, a workshopping of component parts could work toward galvanizing the drama, elevating what here is rather bland and uninvolving into something worthy of the mode he’s attempting to work within.
Despite making the transition smoothly with Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa seems to likewise be fumbling with his way forward with Penance, a five-part television drama that works off an intriguing premise but proceeds to systematically fall apart as Kurosawa attempts to expand its scope. Catching up with four young women 15 years after they witnessed a friend’s murder, Penance utilizes its episodic structure to tell individual tales of redemption, as each girl must eventually gain forgiveness from the mother of their slain schoolmate. The first three parts of the film work very well: The first and most familiar episode sees Kurosawa infuse his slow-burn drama with violent and psychosexual imagery, while the second and third chart the physical and spiritual forces each woman must confront to gain atonement. But from there things take a nosedive. Kurosawa attempts to shoehorn humor into the fourth chapter, forfeiting nearly all the momentum of the prior chapters, which are more closely related to the thriller template. Meanwhile, the final chapter takes the grieving mother on a mission for revenge, contorting through plot contrivances and twists that make less and less thematic sense the further one steps back from the individual stories. Working in this medium obviously forced Kurosawa to lean on his storytelling as opposed to his practical use of effects to convey the drama here, but once Penance loses the thread, things unravel quickly.
Both The Land of Hope and Penance display narrative detail and curious new techniques that each director would do well exploring and expanding on in the future. But here they’ve each seemed to fall short in different ways, Sono by holding his stylistic ambition to such a minimum that he stalls his own drama, and Kurosawa by engaging so many conflicting ideas that he ends up rendering what could have been a well-rounded and affecting emotional journey into an exhausting and unbelievable roller coaster. This restless spirit has and will likely once again pay dividends for these beloved directors, but after reaches such heights in recent years, these new films feel more like transitional works than intended destinations.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—16.