What the balls!? I feel like I could begin any post about Sion Sono with that time-honoured phrase, and I could probably just end the review right there. That wouldn’t be fair to the madcap artistry of Sono, or his fans, or anyone who stumbled upon this very odd Amazon Prime show from the Japanese master. Having been a fan of Sono’s work since the late 90s or early 2000s, a part of me wants to get all of these posts out of the way so that once his first US movie is released – the upcoming Prisoners Of The Ghostland In starring Nic Cage – people will have a nice spot to find reviews of his other work. And party because everyone Tom, Harry, and Dickhead who has never watched a foreign movie in their life is going to jump on the bandwagon, assuming Prisoners is going to be as wacky and successful as I’m hoping.
A very brief intro to the dude if you’re new here, or to Sion Sono; he’s a Japanese movie and TV director, and he also writes. He is one of a batch of very interesting and unique Japanese filmmakers whose work divides opinion and is frequently controversial, bewildering, and critically acclaimed. If there’s one aspect which sets him apart from his peers, I would offer that it’s his use of music and editing – songs and recurring score motifs feature heavily in his work, and he frequently breaks rules and fourth walls with his editing and directing techniques. Most people will know of his work either by name or by notoriety – Suicide Club (famous for its opening shot of school girls leaping to their deaths in front of a train), Tag (already meme bait thanks to its wacky intro where a bus of school kids and teachers are sliced in half by an invisible force), and Tokyo Tribe (an unusual Japanese hip hop musical). He started out in the 80s as a director of ‘Pink Movies’ and has tried his hand (successfully) in most genres you can think of – straight supernatural horror with Exte, poignant drama in The Land Of Hope, thrillers with Cold Fish and Himizu, fantasy courtesy of Love and Peace, and of course whatever the hell Love Exposure (arguably the best film of the last twenty years) is. While he recently did a show with Netflix – the unsurprisingly controversial (and good) The Forest Of Love – he worked with Amazon Studios first on his 9 part series of whatthefuckery known as Tokyo Vampire Hotel.
The title tells you the basics – there’s a hotel in Tokyo used by vampires – but within minutes (and throughout the entire running time) the plot becomes grossly overcomplicated, confusing, and increasingly bizarre. But don’t worry – it’s purposefully silly, it has one fanged tongue firmly in the corner of its mouth, and it’s ridiculously violent and perverse; in short, it’s wonderful. It will be difficult to write about any of this without getting into spoiler territory, but I’ll do my best to summarize the premise without giving too much away – it’s enough to simply say that there are tonnes of characters whose significance wax and wane drastically, and that certain story elements and twists are introduced which may be important and others which seem important but aren’t. A. Lot. Happens.
We begin with a young girl called Minami who is out with her friends one night. Out of nowhere, a violent gang enters the restaurant she’s in and murders everybody. They apparently let Minami live. Then a rival gang comes and there’s a huge shoot-out – everybody wants this girl. Turns out the gangs are from rival vampire clans and a prophecy foretold the importance of Minami, sort of explaining why they are fighting over her. Meanwhile, there’s a fancy pants party going on in an exuberant hotel. It’s an Invitation only affair, and while some of the guests seem to know one another, most are strangers who think they are being selected for some sort of game or dating show. Our host – Yamada – is a charismatic vampire of some respected standing and he informs the guests that they have been purposely selected because of their hyperactive libidos, and that in a few hours time an apocalyptic event is going to end all life on the planet. The sex fiends will be the last surviving people on the world and it will be their job to shag as much as possible and have as many delicious babies as possible so that the vampires have a never-ending food supply. That’s about the gist of everything, but a succession of new plot reveals and characters lets us know that there’s a hell of a lot more going on under the surface – literally.
It is a confusing show and I wouldn’t hold it against anyone who bows out early. Anyone already a fan of Sono should stick around, and anyone who becomes curiously invested in any of what’s going on – the story, the characters, the punk tone, the gorgeous and zany look and feel of the things – will be rewarded with layer after layer of bonkers goodness. Everything about the show is wildly over the top – the acting, the violence, the seedy nature, the secrets. Sometimes in a show like this you need an anchor to keep you grounded – maybe you find that in Minami, maybe you find it in the vampire K, maybe it’s your need to find out what the hell the point of any of it is – for me it was simply to enjoy living inside Sono’s brilliant, demented mind for another few hours. The story has plenty of moments of intrigue and the characters who come and go at a moment’s notice all have their charm, but it’s how Sono squishes all of these aspects together in an apparent middle finger to form and expectation which kept me watching until the end. If you’re looking for a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and end which follows the outlined premise you’ll probably be disappointed, but if you’re after a big pile of wacky stuff to laugh at and tell your mates about all punctuated by moments of sublime cinematic beauty, then Tokyo Vampire Hotel may be for you. There’s nothing like it on the market now – I’m not sure if there has ever been anything like it – and there’s no-one quiet like Sion Sono.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Tokyo Vampire Hotel!