The experience of watching Shion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell is probably a lot like snorting a bottle of 5 Hour Energy. Only the effect of the film lasts two and a half hours and you won’t be hospitalized afterwards. Maybe. During those two and a half hours, we follow a rabidly enthusiastic group of amateur filmmakers called “The Fuck Bombers” as they get mixed up with a rivalry between two Yakuza clans. The gangs are beefing over a young girl who used to be famous for her work in a strangely popular toothpaste commercial. And the girl’s mom is serving 10 years for slaughtering Yakuza members with a butcher knife around town. Yes, the plot itself is insane, but Sono manages to present this hodge-podge of material in a coherent manner – creating an unforgettable movie in the process.
Hirata is the leader of The Fuck Bombers (FBs). He’s a devout soldier of cinema and swears to the “Movie God” that he will die to make one masterpiece. He’s possessed with a powerful, but naive, determination. The other members of FBs are a giant lesbian who calls herself the Queen of the Handheld Shot and an overweight man perpetually on roller-skates so he can act as a human dolly. When we first meet them they’re out on the street, capturing a real life rumble between junior Yakuza members. One of the, Kitamura, joins FBs as their wannabe Bruce Lee action star.
While the FBs relentlessly struggle to make their masterpiece, childhood star Mitsuko gets fired from her toothpaste commercial gig because her gangster father Muto (Jun Kunimura – Outrage) and her murderous mother aren’t really what the brand is looking for. The way everyone is obsessed with Mitsuko’s toothpaste commercial and its contagious jingle is a running joke in the film – one that’s made even funnier when its hard-ass Yakuza gangsters unable to get the jingle outta their heads. The jingle also acts as a clever remark on the disposable and catchy social contributions made by advertisers. It’s one of the many ways the film looks at how media shapes reality – whether you want it to or not.
So Muto’s wife is sentenced to 10 years for killing a whole lot of rival Yakuza thugs. Here the film jumps forward a decade to find everyone basically stuck in the same existence as when we first met them. The FBs are still misguidedly striving for their masterpiece and the two Yakuza clans are still beefing. With his wife being released from prison shortly, Muto is desperately trying to make Mitsuko a movie star. She’s not interested in starring in some melodramatic romance bullshit, she wants to be a badass action star – like the badass she is in real life. Seriously, see if you can get past the “farewell kiss” she gives her ex-boyfriend without cringing.
Muto can’t find a film crew that’ll work with Mitsuko, so enter the Fuck Bombers. Finally their prayers to the Movie God are answered and they have the means to create a masterpiece. Their leader, Hirata, refuses to compromise his filmmaking integrity even in the face of the Yakuza. In a very strong way, he’s the kind of guy most directors start out as in their youth – before huge paychecks and the politics of the industry cloud their morals. Sono returns to that state with Why Don’t You Play in Hell as he utilizes everything in the toolbox like a giddy film school student. Insane zooms, transitions, pans, etc. – the whole shebang is on full, glorious display. In essence, the film is a hyper-stylized celebration of cinema, with buckets of blood thrown in for good measure.
Everything leads up to the shooting of Hirata’s masterpiece, which is basically a John Woo shootout cranked up to 11. This is where the lines of reality and fantasy truly blur. We’re not quite sure what’s really happening or who’s really dying. Characters who just a moment before took a katana to the brain continue to rumble and even the FBs get into the action with automatic weapons that materialize from out of nowhere. It’s amazing, giddy stuff that homages a ton of films, like Bruce Lee’s Game of Death and Kill Bill.
Huge in scope but focused in its bravado, Why Don’t You Play in Hell is Sono (Cold Fish, Love Exposure) delivering a big, sloppy Bugs Bunny-style kiss to cinema. Like the Fuck Bombers and their excitable leader Hirata, Sono wants his audience to go crazy over movies again – to scream our love of cinema to the world, which he and his characters certainly do here. It’s a stunning audio-visual seizure that laments the end of 35mm, but celebrates all of the possibilities of cinema. Hirata frequently proclaims that he’ll die for cinema and, after watching his film, I have a feeling Sono isn’t just talking shit.