Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is a pleasantly ambitious yakuza story that’s unconventional in the best of ways, but what else do you expect from acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono? Every bit of the vibrant auteur’s madcap style shines through a bloody mess of gangster limbs spewing bodily fluids, delivering EXACTLY what Sono fans crave. By smashing together a hardened revenge plot with satirical moviemaking commentary that’s peppered in between outrageous violence and hilariously cheesy staging, Sono produces what might possibly be the most “important” Hollywood mocku-drama in decades. Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is just too f#cking cool for school, confirming Sono’s status as Japan’s very own ambitiously driven, brilliantly eccentric, and obsessively focused Quentin Tarantino clone.
There are many moving parts to Sono’s madness, but the jumpy plot is tethered tightly by a yakuza grudge between two rivalling clans. As warring leaders Muto (Jun Kunimura) and Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi) plan their next moves, the release of Muto’s incarcerated wife brings upon another matter of business in the cinema world involving his child-star daughter. Promising his wife a completed film starring their beloved Michiko (Fumi Nikaidô), there’s no possible way the film will actually be finished thanks to Michiko’s decision to abandon shooting and run away. The tides turn, however, when Muto captures Michiko, bringing on an idea that’ll kill two birds with one stone – why not film his clan’s violent raid on Ikegami’s castle and make Michiko the star? This is where Director Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa) comes in, bringing along his filmmaking crew (nicknamed the “Fuck Bombers”) for the “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
Sono’s imagination doesn’t exist on a plane where yours or mine might, ensuring that his work contains numerous layers that are all firing on their own spastic cylinders. Why Don’t You Play In Hell? runs the gamut of audaciously sweet to sickeningly violent, from relentlessly hilarious to deeply unnerving, cutting between a vengeful daughter, two angry yakuza clans, and a group of filmmakers who run around screaming “Fuck Bombers!” whenever they get a chance. The only discerning factor about having so many clashing stories is an elongated runtime (in the ballpark of 130 minutes), but this is commonplace for a Sion Sono epic. Some viewers will panic when no bloody battles commence throughout the first hour of storytelling, but trust me when I say that Sono delivers mightily on his promise of bloodshed, samurai fighting, and movie making magic. The journey just requires some patience.
The efforts of Sono are so ingeniously unique that one has to ponder how a director can have such control yet embrace wild tonal shifts around every turn. Japanese movies of this nature frequently display massive mood swings, highlighted by satirical soap-opera moments that come complete with dreamy soundtracks. Within mere seconds, however, Sono switches right back to loose gunplay and decapitated heads. Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is a constantly shifting wonder that manages each jump with equal grace, which is a rather admirable feat considering so many filmmakers struggle to keep even one weighty atmosphere seamlessly in tact. Sono creates a bizarro world where reality and cinema exists as one, and the result walks a fine line between “vocally poignant” and “dementedly entertaining.”
Sono’s direction finds a vivacious energy in all his characters, whether he’s chronicling Director Hirata’s kamikaze filmmaking or exploiting Ikegami’s strange obsession with Michiko’s child stardom, but the actors themselves ensure that Sono’s savage universe never loses its atmospheric charm.
Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, who plays Ikegami, stands out as Muto’s flamboyant archrival by flashing the goofiest of smiles whenever entranced by Michiko’s performances, establishing a boss character whose personality couldn’t be farther from a yakuza brute. The Fuck Bombers delight as a renegade group of film nerds, complete with a Bruce Lee lookalike, and it’s their fanatical devotion to making cinema’s greatest achievement that turns them into lovable oafs. Hell, even the “generic” gangsters carry out memorable actions, whipping out cocaine at the drop of a dime, proving how Sono’s attention to detail benefits even the smallest supporting characters. Oh, and Fumi Nikaidô – don’t even get me started on one of my favorite new international talents unless you’ve got another half-an-hour to spare.
There’s nothing else worth saying about Why Don’t You Play In Hell? besides complimenting Sono on making a brilliantly ballsy movie about filmmaking that’s anything BUT a stereotypical bashing of mainstream mediums. Sono’s recipe for success mixes a demented love story, a wacky yakuza rivalry, B-Movie gore, and sacrificial filmmakers in a boiling pot that ends up tasting like a supreme delicacy. The final thirty minutes or so rival anything I’ve seen on screen this year to date, and while some might find the build-up arduous, true lovers of Sono’s work will appreciate the sadistically touching ride that Michiko, Hirata and more take their sweet time playing out. Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is a wonderful addition to Sion Sono’s illustrious catalog, comparable to what most consider the cream of his crop.
Sono achieves a level of insanity that most filmmakers wouldn't even dare to challenge, turning Why Don't You Play In Hell? into a uniquely decadent cinematic treat that delivers exactly as advertised.