Guilty of Romance

Original title
Koi no Tsumi
Japanese title
  • 恋の罪
Running time
96 minutes
3 September 2012
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"How’s the sex trade going?" In the universe of Sion Sono, this is just a question a mother asks her daughter. Over tea. In front of a guest.

Guilty of Romance confirms a few things about Sion Sono. Thankfully, it’s the good things it confirms. Not the “I’m drunk, I’m halfway through the film and I have no idea what to do next” side of Sion Sono (cf. Suicide Club). It confirms that here is a filmmaker with a keen eye for mankind’s dark side, who will not compromise his perceptiveness for the sake of consensus, though occasionally he does turn a blind eye for the sake of commerce and making a buck (see Be Sure to Share or Exte: Hair Extensions) - but then, we all have to give our children an education, so who can blame him? Making movies is, in any case, a commercial venture. Better to acknowledge this fact before you start than to spend a lifetime pretending you’re a great artist with some unique vision to share by way of somebody else’s money and a film crew of several dozen people.

Initially presented as a murder mystery, Guilty of Romance quickly dispenses with most of the procedurals in favour of the backstory, the literal meat behind the grisly murder scene discovered in Shibuya’s love hotel district. Izumi (busty former nude model Kagurazaka, also seen in Sono’s Cold Fish / Tsumetai Nettaigyo) is the demure wife of successful if anally retentive author of erotic novels Kikuchi (Tsuda), who spends her days tiptoeing about their pristinely kept marital domicile, striving to serve her husband the perfect cup of tea and to achieve a flawless way to present him his slippers upon his return from work. The viewer knows before Izumi does that there must be less wholesome sides to her personality just itching to burst forth, if only from the torrid passages her husband reads from his own work to an appreciative audience at public appearances, which seem just a tad too much of a contrast to the sterile, frigid perfection of their domestic bliss. A meeting with an agent looking for models for sexy photo shoots pushes just the right subconscious buttons and after a metaphorical deflowering in front of a photographer’s lens, Izumi is soon scouring the sloping backstreets off Dogenzaka in a low-cut dress looking for chance encounters with horny males.

The encounter that proves to be most fateful, however, is with Mitsuko, an elite literature professor by day who turns nymphomaniac prostitute by night. Played by the radiantly powerful Makoto Togashi, Mitsuko is reminiscent of the manipulative, perverted masterminds played by Sakura Ando in Love Exposure and especially Tsugumi in Noriko’s Dinner Table, two other tales of naïveté thoroughly twisted beside which Guilty of Romance comfortably assumes its rightful place in the Sono pantheon.

For all the plentiful scenes of perversion, sexual and otherwise, what proves Guilty of Romance to be truly impressive is not a scene, but a cut: after Izumi has taken on a job in a supermarket hawking sausages, her initially dismissive, creepy middle-aged manager puts his hand on her shoulder in a gesture whose true meaning could hardly be misunderstood. While we are still shaking off our goosebumps over the old man’s lecherous move, Sono cuts to Izumi washing her hands in the back room, looking at herself in the mirror with a hint of a smile on her face. The cut suggests a number of things and we are free to interpret the transition as we like, yet there is little doubt as to what transpired. And it isn’t what most of us would have chosen to do in the situation.

Quite a few threads in the plot are left dangling and the wraparound story of police detective Yoshida (Mizuno) investigating two (or is it one?) cases of murder and dismemberment amounts to little more than a lead-up to the tale of Izumi’s inexorable stroll down her own psyche. The murderer’s grotesque M.O. (heads and limbs of dead bodies are replaced with those of mannequins) plays no further role in the narrative. Even when the killer is eventually unmasked, the motivations become no clearer, nor does it shed any new light on the main characters of Izumi and Mitsuko. This is likely due to the re-edit which the director undertook after the film’s screening in the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, bringing the running time back from 144 minutes to the current length, and sacrificing much of the murder investigation - as well as detective Yoshida’s personality - in the process.

Having not seen the longer version, it is difficult to draw conclusions about how the two edits compare. The only choice was to follow Izumi’s descent as it was presented. This I did not at all against my will. In its present form, dangling strands and all, Guilty of Romance is a twisted, stylish, and lurid tale of dark sexuality, and the marginalisation of the murder subplot only helps render this clearer. The impact of two full-frontal nude scenes by Kagurazaka and Togashi (who appear to have been cast – and quite effectively so – for being physical opposites) is far greater than that of any of the gore and it would be interesting to see what would happen if Sono dispensed with the murder plot entirely, since it currently seems to serve predominantly as a ploy to bring things conveniently to a close - as well as link the film with its predecessor, the superb Cold Fish (which did very effectively take its sweet time to explore both the sexuality and the murderous impulses of its characters). A clearer focus would likely place Guilty of Romance more firmly in the proximity of Sono’s magnificent neo-eroguro piece Strange Circus.