Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell traces its roots back to yakuza films, kung fu classics and light romances. It tells the story of a group of guerrilla film-makers fated to make one masterpiece together. That the film is about two yakuza gangs fighting a final battle with each other would not be noteworthy, except that the film is financed by the one of the gangs and involves an actual raid and fight to death. Beyond the buckets-of-blood stylings of the film, there is a little something for everyone, and as far as Japanese comedies go, it is accessible to western audiences.
The movie opens on a day ten years prior to the main story-line. Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa) and his band of amateur filmmakers, the “Fuck Bombers”, happen upon a fight between rival teenage gangs. Never missing an opportunity to shoot action sequences, Hirata steps in and directs the gang fight. In the process, he meets Sasaki (Tak Sakaguchi), an wanna be gangster whom Hirata is convinced he can make into the Japanese Bruce Lee. On that same day, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi leads a raid on the house of Mutu (Jun Kunimura), a yakuza king pin. The raid goes horribly wrong. Mutu isn’t home and his wife successfully fends off the attack with a kitchen knife. Tsutsumi, injured, wanders the streets, where he encounters the filmmakers for the first time and agrees to let them film him skulk away in pain. We are also introduced that day to a young Mituko (Fumi Nikaidô), Mutu’s daughter and the current star of a popular TV commercial for toothpaste. She means everything to Mutu and his wife, but the violence of the murder and association with the underworld derails her budding acting career
Advancing ten years, Mutu has been telling his wife that Mitusko’s career has taken off to help her cope with her incarceration. She will be getting out soon and Mutu is worried that the truth will be devastating to her. He launches a plan to finance a film for his daughter. It might work if only the star will stay put. Mitusko would like a different role for herself than a female love interest her father has planned for her. She would like to be a kick-ass heroine. She is being held captive by Mutu’s henchmen for running away from the set of the film she is in, but escapes during yet another turf battle with a rival gang.
She meets a nice young man named Koji (Gen Hoshino) who happens to have had a crush on her since her toothpaste commercial days and she pays him to pretend to be her boyfriend, mainly to help her get revenge on her own cheating boyfriend but also to be a patsy to endure her father’s wrath if they are captured. She does take a liking to Koji enough to buy him time from his execution by telling her father that he is a film director. To finally get the film off the ground, the gang needs to find a real film production crew. A professional crew may not be available, but there is a certain chatty amateur director with a Bruce Lee wannabe side kick who is desperate and foolish enough to take the job without asking too many questions.
Yes, the plot is convoluted, but then if you wanted simplicity, you probably would have selected a different genre. Actually I found the plot tighter than most violent comedies, with fewer confusing diversions. Sono tracks four or five subplots that he nicely sews together in a final battle, and that is probably about as many plots as a viewer can keep track of without a scorecard.
The humor is largely character driven, with Kunimura and Nikaidô playing straight-albeit crazy-roles against Hoshino’s mousy fear and Hasegawa’s over-the-top optimism. If it weren’t for the gore, it would still be a very funny film.
That plot tightness and clear characterization make Play In Hell relatively accessible even for detractors of this kind of film. Yes, it may be gory and violent, but never so gory and violent that the film strays away from comedy into surreal gothic territory. This isn’t the blood of nightmares, but slapstick blood, if there is such a thing. The timid viewer (of which I am one) will find himself thinking “Ewwww”, but will not need a fainting couch or barf bag. Pretty much everybody dies gruesomely, but a good time is had by all.
***1/2 of Five