Guilty of Romance (2011)
By: Stuart Giesel on September 9, 2012  | 
Monster Pictures | All Regions, PAL | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | Japanese DD 5.1 | 113 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Sion Sono
Starring: Makoto Togashi, Megumi Kagurazaka, Miki Mizuno, Kazuya Kojima
Screenplay: Sion Sono
Country: Japan
External Links
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Sion Sono is getting quite the name as a sort of twisted Japanese counterpart to South Korea's Kim Ki-Duk, presenting stylised, deliberately inflammatory material, often with a sexual bent. And Guilty of Romance is right up there along with The Isle, Bad Guy and Bedevilled as one of the most fucked-up things I've seen in quite some time outside of Takashi Miike.

I've only seen one other Sion Sono film (Suicide Club, which was a charmer) so I don't feel I'm as equipped to comment about his directorial trademarks or flourishes as I would with, say, Park Chan-Wook. However if his other films like Cold Fish and Love Exposure (which, together with Guilty of Romance, make up Sono's so-called "Hate Trilogy") are as twisted as Romance, then I have three things to say:

  1. Sono seems to have a style that mixes David Lynch with Takashi Miike and a dab of psycho-sexual David Cronenberg for good measure. No bad thing.
  2. I'll be viewing some of his other notable films as soon as I can grab 'em, including Love Exposure which is apparently a four-hour epic that involves, amongst many other elements, upskirt photography
  3. This is apparently inspired by real events in Japan in the 1990s. Holy shit!

There have been murders in what is colloquially known as the "love hotel" district of Tokyo. But it's more than that - human body parts have been found attached to mannequin body parts in some sort of weird, psycho-sexual game of Operation. One or more of these parts may belong to one of our two "heroines". Izumi Kikuchi (Megumi Kagurazaka) is a repressed housewife to a famed novelist (and A-grade dickhead) who yearns for more in her life whilst her husband is away at work. She finds work, initially and reluctantly, as a model. However the modelling shoots quickly disintegrate from tasteful to nude to almost-rape. As she goes from swimwear modelling to full-blown porn, Izumi experiences what can only be called a sexual awakening, and she proceeds to bed any guy she sees. She meets up with Mitsuko Ozawa (Makoto Togashi), a University lecturer who moonlights as a prostitute, and who teaches Izumi the ways of her profession. She's easily the more messed-up of the pair; at night she becomes a predator, and isn't happy until she sinks Izumi down to her level of degradation. Add in Mitsuko's mother, who's just as mental as her daughter, a paint balloon-throwing pimp, classical music and some Kafka, and things get a little more twisted. You just know how this sort of thing is going to end.

Guilty of Romance can be seen as a critique of where women stand in Japanese society, how they are mired in positions of subservience. It could also be seen as the deeply cynical, almost misogynistic exploitation of two women. That's Sono's trick here - he's able to make an intelligent, thoughtful thriller out of some really rough exploitative material. The film is pretty nihilistic stuff, but thankfully the two lead performances are worth the watch. Both Megumi Kagurazaka and Makoto Togashi are excellent and believable in tough roles which require plenty of honesty and soul-searching (and, yes, nudity). I'd say out of the two performances that Megumi Kagurazaka just beats out Makoto Togashi. She starts off as a timid, subservient housewife and after a few "experimentations" finds out she's a complete slut and is soon picking up customers at the local grocery store as she's selling sausages. It's something of a rapid and massive shift in personality and probably not handled as believably as I would have expected, but reality is clearly not Sono's intent here. And props to Kagurazaka, who has to spend a lot of the movie in compromising positions, usually naked. In fact, she has a mirror face-off scene that was reminiscent of Robert De Niro's classic scene in Taxi Driver - here, Kagurazaka stands in front of a mirror completely naked practicing her "sell sausages to strangers" lines over and over, getting more confident with each reading. Sad and somewhat disturbing; thankfully she's incredibly easy on the eyes. Makoto Togashi is able to make a stunning, yet believable, transformation between University lecturer to wolf-like prostitute with a change of makeup and clothes, but it's the look in her eyes that really sells it. You get the feeling that were she not constrained by the rules of society she'd literally eat up her nightly prey, black widow spider style.

When we're not diving into the hitherto-uncharted sexual realms with Izumi or following the demented Mitsuko, we're mired in a grisly detective story where Sono gives us gut-churning scenes of bodies in clinically cold fashion. This blend of sex and death is persistent throughout the film, and not only serves to deeply, deeply unsettle us, but to distance us from the narrative as well. It's like Se7en if Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman scooted off to the local brothel for a quickie in between those gruesome crime scene investigations. And on top of it all, Sono injects classical music through the piece to give it an air of sophistication and, dare I say it, pretension.

I'm conflicted with my opinion of Guilty of Romance. On the one hand, it's a well-made, disturbing look into the darker side of Japanese culture and the damage it has done to two women from different walks of life. On the other hand, there's ultimately something dissatisfying about the film. It's not the nihilism, nor the story itself or how it's resolved - it's something intangible I can't quite place. Certainly, Sono doesn't provide any easy answers, so maybe that's the reason - don't expect a tidy denouement. Still, with two excellent lead performances and some nasty moments, Guilty of Romance has compelled me to seek out some of Sion Sono's other works, which means he's done something right.
Guilty of Romance's transfer is clean as you would expect for a modern film, though the darker scenes lose a lot of detail. It's not an especially glorious looking movie - after all, a lot of it is based around seedy brothels and hotel rooms - but the neon-soaked streets are eye-catching and the colours are strong, particularly in the gaudy, sleazy love hotel rooms that look like something out of Dario Argento's catalogue. It's a good picture, but not great.

Unfortunately the English subtitles, although good, are burned in.
There's only a Dolby 5.1 audio track in Japanese language to choose from; thankfully it's nicely immersive, especially in the love hotel district where the noise, the bustle of people and the dripping of water set the scene nicely. The classical music comes through nice and strong, as does the dialogue.
Extra Features
It would have been nice to have Sono's 144 minute cut on the disc as well, but he's stated that he prefers this shorter international cut, so maybe we're not missing out on too much. Apparently most of the excised footage relates to the crime scene investigator so that the focus of the film is on the two leading ladies, no bad thing and possibly the right decision in the end. Still, it would have been nice to have the deleted scenes included on the disc, if not the alternate cut.

That said, the DVD does have a couple of decent features. The Interview with Lead Actress Megumi Kagurazaka is just that, a sit-down with Kagurazaka who talks about her previous job as a Japanese gravure model (as she explains it, the term refers to Japanese female swimwear models), working with Sion Sono on Guilty of Romance and his previous film Cold Fish. Though the interview is good and Kagurazaka is open about her work, the interviewer seems to not have seen the film, or only parts of it, and at times he speaks as much as Kagurazaka does. Also, the dialogue is slightly out-of-sync at the beginning.

The disc has an Audio Commentary with Film Critic Jasper Sharp. Sharp provides an excellent, thorough commentary on the film itself, Sono's work in general and on the Japanese film industry. There are very few dead spots and Sharp proves himself an informative, entertaining commentator, well worth listening to for fans of the film and/or fans of Sono. The only criticisms I have is that Sharp tends to talk more about other films rather than this one, and cuts the commentary off about twenty minutes before the film ends.

The disc also contains the Theatrical Trailer, which, on my copy, had sound issues where the dialogue was not properly synched with the footage.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Disturbing and nihilistic. Sion Sono's film, reminiscent of Kim Ki-Duk's Bad Guy, portrays modern life for two Japanese women as distressingly ugly and bleak. It has exploitative elements, but doesn't feel exploitative. However because of its cold, clinical nature it rarely connects on an emotional level, despite the great lead performances.

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