Strange Circus

Original title
Kimyo na Sakasu
Japanese title
  • 奇妙なサーカス
Running time
108 minutes
3 May 2006
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We've signalled it before in these pages: the fantastique in Japanese film is undergoing a radical metamorphosis. J-horror was living on borrowed time, a corpse temporarily re-animated with foreign blood after its initial death five years ago, but now decaying so badly that all it can muster is an occasional twitch and spasm. Instead, the nation's filmmakers are looking elsewhere for inspiration, to a past that offered a more full-blooded, garish, wild, unrestrained, even celebratory way of looking at the dark side of humanity. Ero-guro is back.

Takashi Miike's contribution to the Asian horror omnibus Three... Extremes, Box (2004), already signalled the direction, while Shinya Tsukamoto was, as usual, way ahead of the crowd with 1999's Gemini (Soseiji), an adaptation of a short story by the single most important figure in the ero-guro tradition, Edogawa Rampo. But it is the glee and the vibrancy of last year's magnificent Rampo Noir that seems to have acted like a sort of cold shower: a unexpected shock at first, but one that kickstarted the circulation and made the juices flow again.

Suddenly ero-guro-themed productions were lining up to be unleashed onto an unsuspecting audience: Hisayasu Sato's Shisei: The Tattooer, based on the first published work by Rampo's equally kinky colleague and contemporary Junichiro Tanizaki, Miike's U.S.-financed Imprint, and Suicide Club director Sion Sono's aptly-titled Strange Circus.

Equal parts gorgeous and grotesque - perhaps the most defining characteristic of ero-guro - Sono's Strange Circus is a gaudily stylised, at times disturbing plunge into the mixed-up mind of Taeko (Miyazaki), a writer of erotic novels whose latest opus delves deep into the sexual traumas that mark her own psyche: the all-devouring desire between her and her brutish, perverted husband (former glam rocker and artist Oguchi) that ruptured their family when it began to ensnare their teenage daughter. She is assigned a young assistant, Yuji (the androgynous Ishida), who slowly begins to uncover the truth behind Taeko's fictional version of her life story.

The premise of Strange Circus clearly echoes Rampo, whose stories often acknowledged their own fictional nature, often going so far as to incorporate the author himself in their narratives. A good example is his novel The Beast in the Shadows (which spawned a pair of middling movies in 1994's flaccid biopic The Mystery of Rampo and Barbet Schroeder's 2008, French-produced Inju: The Beast in the Shadow - but don't let that stop you from picking up the recently published English translation from Kurodahan Press), a first-person account of a mystery author investigating a murder case laced with kinky sex, in which the prime suspect is a literary colleague. Just as Rampo reversed the roles by having the villain resemble himself and modelling the narrator hero after his more traditional detective writer friend Seishi Yokomizo, Sono casts doubt upon exactly who in the story is meant to represent Taeko: the mother or the daughter?

With its allusions to incest, paedophilia, and transsexuality, Strange Circus also embraces Rampo's penchant for perversities, giving it more than its share of shock potential. Director Sono, however, cleverly plays the old game of "is it real or imagined?", making creative use of the blurred lines between fantasy and reality to neatly avoid the pitfalls of exploitation. Where Suicide Club saw him lose the plot in spur-of-the-moment weirdness that had only the most tenuous connection with the rest of the film, in this story of a writer's delusions Sono's tendency to go off on tangents finds the perfect environment. The paradoxical result is a far more focused and consistent film.

In addition to the genre's preoccupation with perversion and death, Strange Circus also wholeheartedly embraces the ero-guro aesthetic. There is solid dose of the carnivalesque, particularly in a key recurring scene from which the film derives its name. The European-style mansion that forms its main location is rendered damply claustrophobic despite its spacious rooms and the bright sunlight streaming in through high windows, its hallways occasionally transforming into blood-dripping, crimson corridors that look like the insides of a giant beast. The heroine's publisher (played by ubiquitous but always welcome Tomorowo Taguchi) holds court in a shack whose decorations seem to have been bought at the liquidation sale of Akihiro Miwa's hideout from Kinji Fukasaku ero-guro classic Black Lizard (Kurotokage, 1968). A cello case takes the place of Rampo's human chair, while wheelchairs, leather strappings, and dangling chains add to the air of fetid fetishism and a buzzing chainsaw brings the whole thing in line with a more contemporary take on corporeal horror. Strange Circus is a film full of kicks, in every sense of the word.