While Japanese cinema is trying hard to steer clear from a total implosion, one man is having the time of his life. Shion Sono has no less than 5 films lined up for 2015, of which Rairu Onigokko (Tag) is one of the weirder-looking ones. And those who know Sono a little understand a statement like that isn't to be taken lightly. I went in completely blank and I urge everyone to do the same, because the less you know about Sono's latest, the better it works. Needless to say, the result is one of a kind.
Originality is hard to come by these days, finding a film that leaves you unsure of where it's heading almost sounds like a utopia. Still, that is exactly what Sono accomplishes with Rairu Onigokko. Even when you're already familiar with the source material (Yusuke Yamada's 2001 novel by the same name), you'll be hard-pressed to get a grip on this little horror/mystery. Sono merely copies the novel's premise and runs with it to make it his own little mindbender.
Riaru Onigokko is a rather difficult film to review. Not because there isn't much to tell about the film (on the contrary even), but disclosing too much would definitely spoil the experience. For one, the opening sequence is completely outrageous, a strong build-up leading up to a terrific accident that instantly shakes you awake. What follows is a succession of strange events that constantly keep you on your toes. Expect to be bewildered, expect to be surprised.
The film follows Mitsuko, a young highschool girl out on a trip with her classmates. A freak accident leaves her all alone in the middle of the woods. Dazed and unsure of what to do, she stumbles around until she reaches a village. To her own surprise, all her friends are there, starting another day at school. Mitsuko is completely stunned, but her friend Aki is there to comfort her. She manages to convince Mitsuko the prior events were nothing but a strange dream, but that's when things get really weird.
I could be wrong, but I think Sono used Riaru Onigokko to experiment a little with drones. The film involves a lot of running and the camera is hardly ever static. Tracking shots on the road are mostly done with traditional techniques, but some aerial footage feels a little too slick and agile to be done with either planes or cranes. Whatever the case, the camera work lends the film a very spatial and dynamic feel. Another point of interest are the practical effects, which were handled by Yoshihiro Nishimura (of Nihon Bundan: Heru Doraiba and Tokyo Zankoku Keisatsu fame). What that means is you shouldn't expect very convincing or lifelike special effects, but you can be certain it goes well over the top.
The soundtrack is outstanding, but I wouldn't expect anything less from Sono. The recurring main theme is both mysterious and tense and it somehow grounds the crazier moments of the film. But there are also some quirkier song choices, like the Anchors Aweigh theme tune that pops up halfway through. You may think it's quite out of place, but it makes for a very cute Battle Royale-like effect and it's little odd choices like these that keep his soundtracks interesting.
The performances of the actors are a little less straightforward. Mitsuko is played by (relative) newcomer Reina Triendl. The least you can say about her performance is that it's a little odd, at times it's just borderline alien-like. Yuki Sakurai (Aki) puts in a very similar performance, hinting to the fact that there's some kind of method to the madness. And once the credits start rolling it should be a little clearer why their characters felt more than a little off, but the first hour or so you may be forgiven for thinking the acting is merely subpar (yet still intriguing in some undefinable way). The only thing I can say is that it's best to hold off your final judgement until the film is completely over.
At times, Riaru Onigokko feels like proper exploitation cinema. There is no lack of fan service, plenty of gory bits and enough weirdness to keep the wtf momentum going strong throughout the entire film. The ending should clear up a couple of things though, even when it doesn't fully reveal whether the film is meant as a critique of a broader phenomenon or merely a warning against certain extremities. Then again, I guess the answer to that question is more dependent on the one who is watching than on the film itself.
Whatever the case though, Riaru Onigokko is a unique film. It kept me guessing the entire way through, there are some very memorable scenes and the acting is spot on. Add to that some nice-looking camera work and a great score and it's clear Shion Sono has another winner on his hands. It may be a bit much for people not really familiar with Sono's earlier work, but if you're a fan of the man you can just go in blind and gear up for a pretty wild ride. If his other 2015 films are only half as great, it's going to be a spectacular year for Sono.