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Far East Extreme: In praise of Sion Sono’s “Strange Circus”

Monday, November 26, 2018 | Opinion

Welcome to Far East Extreme! We hope to show you the best that Asian horror cinema has to offer. For a moment, let’s leave Sadako in the well where she belongs; little ghost boys that meow like cats will also be the least of our concern. No, we are going to go all in: with buckets of blood, organs strewn around every which way, sex (in the way you least prefer), and psychological disorders aplenty. Lock your door, hide your waifu, keep that body pillow handy, and try not to barf into your cup ramen. Are you ready?

I’d like to start this column off on a proper note, so today I bring you STRANGE CIRCUS! This 2005 Japanese cult classic was directed by master of macabre Sion Sono, more known in the west for his debut film Suicide Club. Both may appear similar, at least thematically – the struggle of modern Japanese youth is all too real; however this film goes a little darker and (brace yourselves) younger.

The film initially centers on twelve year old Mitsuko played by (again, brace yourselves) an actual twelve year old, actress Rie Kuwana. One night, little Mitsuko wakes up from a bad dream, only to wade into a living nightmare when she walks in on her parents doing the nasty. Her father Gozo (played by Hiroshi Oguchi) also happens to be her school principal, and he decides to give her an up-close and personal lesson in…ahem…anatomy. Forced to hide inside a cello case with a peephole, Mitsuko is once again subjected to the trauma of the night before. This isn’t the end of her ordeal in the least bit, as her unceasingly horny old man gets the bright idea that his wife and daughter should switch places.

Having already heard that this movie contained sequences of underage girls being abused and degraded, I had assumed that the rest of the film would continue on in the same vein, making STRANGE CIRCUS an ungainly mix of Martyrs, torture porn flicks like Hostel, and with an unsavory dash of lolicon thrown in. The movie has certainly been accused of being such. And that wouldn’t necessarily bother me; like everyone’s favorite vagrant puppet on Sesame Street, I too love trash. My life is that much more fulfilled for having seen Ghoulies Go to College, Leprechaun in the Hood, Chopping Mall, or my personal favorite, The Horrible Sexy Vampire. And, for as much as our society shuns depictions of rape and systemic abuse, two of the classics of the horror genre happen to be Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, both of which were made over 40 years ago. How far have we come since then? Well, let’s get back to the movie at hand.

The body switching mechanic plays a large part thematically throughout the film.  As the daughter begins to take on the role of the mother, and vice versa, their interactions – primarily with each other, take on another layer of complexity. Who is jealous of whom, which of them is trying to kill the other? Also re-occurring are Mitsuko’s visions of a circus, and a stage on which a guillotine is waiting, but for whom? The movie is also rich in symbolism, such as the cello case that seems to find its way into most scenes. It is difficult to approach this film on a purely literal level, though it can still be enjoyed as such.

“As the daughter begins to take on the role of the mother, and vice versa, their interactions – primarily with each other, take on another layer of complexity.”

STRANGE CIRCUS delivers thrills on psychological spooks as well as disturbing visuals. The film is markedly spare on the red sauce – aside from a particularly grisly scene involving one of the characters in surgery. Apart from that, Mitsuko’s world can be said to have a certain blood motif. The school, seen from an abused child’s point of view, is absolutely covered with it from floor to ceiling, complete with the appropriate splattering sound affects as the poor girl makes the fated walk alone to the Principal’s office. Special attention should also be given to the rest of the set design: besides the creepy school there is also a great swanky club-cum-church with nuns as hostesses, and writer Taeko’s apartment that’s filled with various oddities. Everything is rather bright and clearly-shot despite the dark subject material.

Alas, you can’t turn your brain off completely for this film. Rather than being a linear story, there is a sort of bizarre parallel narrative beginning at the half-hour mark concerning a familiar-looking horror novelist with a locked room containing a familiar-looking cello case. But what is the significance of all this; which is truth and which is the horror story? The script, serving the dual purpose of horror dialogue and novel within-a-film, is mostly well-written, and all of the cast give convincing performances. Credit goes once again to Rie Kuwana for actually giving some depth and authenticity to her performance, though the film wisely opts to leave the heavy-lifting to the mother character, played by Masumi Miyazaki. Also notable is the character Yuji, played by Issei Ishida, the stoic hanger-on who decides to investigate his favorite writer, but may have a secret of his own. That the film balances all of these subplots in a runtime of only about 100 minutes is itself admirable.

Movies like STRANGE CIRCUS are often thought of as existing only for shock purposes: you can be disturbed and grossed-out by it, sure, but you can’t really like watching it. I can agree with this assertion in regards to certain films (say, for example, the imaginative but painfully overwrought Antichrist) but that logic doesn’t really apply here. This film is rather enjoyable in its own way, both for visual chills and for the acrobatic twists of its plot. Anyone who can give this film an honest watch  (and stomach the first 20 minutes or so) are in for a fascinating ride, and as this film benefits from multiple re-watches, it’d be highly advised to visit the STRANGE CIRCUS again sometime.

Alex Ehrenreich
I'm a writer and horror-lover currently living in Tokyo. Be sure to check out my column "Far-East Extreme" where I write about the best in Asian horror cinema every month.