Fantastic Fest Review: "Why Don't You Play in Hell" is the Best Kind of Insane Japanese Cinema

Yakuza violence meets Super 8, and it's glorious.


Director: Sion Sono
Running time: 126 minutes
Score: 9/10

Less than 24 hours into this year's Fantastic Fest, I've already seen one indelible image that will be hard for any of the fest's remaining movies to beat: a young, inexperienced dolly shot operator happily filming two opposing mob families hacking each other into pieces while, in his left hand, he's mowing through as many of them as possible with a machine gun, while smiling like it's the greatest moment of his life. Which it undoubtedly is.

Why Don't You Play in Hell, the latest film from Japanese provocateur Sion Sono (Suicide Club 2001; Love Exposure, 2008), defies simple explanation, but, screw it, here goes nothing: Two rival yakuza gangs (Japan's answer to American mob families) get ready for war over one yakuza leader named Muto's (Jun Kunimara) beautiful, wild child daughter, Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaido), who also happens to be a failed movie actress. Muto's wife, who's coming home in 10 days from a decade-long prison bid, dreams of seeing her little girl on the big screen. As a "Welcome Home" gift to the woman he loves, Muto decides to make a movie starring Mitsuko, which, through a random series of events, leads him to a rag-tag crew of wannabe filmmakers self-dubbed "the Fuck Bombers." Led by excitable cinephile Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa), the group has been aspiring to become action cinema titans since childhood but have fuck-all to show for those goals.

That's about as concise of a plot synopsis Why Don't You Play in Hell will receive, although, frankly, Sono's anarchist crowd-pleaser of a midnight movie doesn't really need to be succinctly defined. It's several films in one: a yakuza crime flick, a Super 8-esque love letter to kids who adore moviemaking, a slapstick comedy, a martial arts bruiser, and heightened genre bloodbath. The beauty of Why Don't You Play in Hell is that it's all of those things at all times, and, miraculously, Sono is totally able to sustain the tonal raucousness throughout the film's 122-minute duration. It's a long haul, yet it's so much damn fun that those two hours whiz by with the fury of Mitsuko's samurai sword. Because, yes, Why Don't You Play in Hell is, to bring one more category into play, also has pieces of sexy-women-with-blades (i.e., the wonderful Nikaido, seen above, who, apart from being a deadpan scene-stealer, is a stunner) eye candy that will make Quentin Tarantino want to reboot Kill Bill immediately.

Tarantino will similarly love Sono's modus operandi here. More than a blood-splattered action-comedy blowout, Why Don't You Play in Hell is the writer-director's loving ode to classic Japanese cinema that works on two equally efficient levels. For the uninitiated, Sono crams in the perfectly overzealous amount of larger-than-life characters, broad humor, and lively stylistic flourishes to lend the film an accessibility to anyone who prefers their movies way left of center. But Why Don't You Play in Hell is rooted in the director's influences, from the B-movie gangsterism seen through Muto's suit-clad minions to the kimono style of his enemy Ikegama's crew (Shinichi Tsutsumi) that's straight out of an old Akira Kurosawa period film. Sono doesn't limit the winks to his native country, though. One of the Fuck Bombers dresses in the yellow jumpsuit made famous by Bruce Lee in Game of Death (1979).

Mr. Kill Bill's favorite part of Why Don't You Play in Hell, however, just might be the film's out-of-control climax, during which the aforementioned dolly shot character's Scarface moment happens. Along with, in no particular order of craziness, Mitsuko slicing off seven or eight combatants' heads off with one sword swoop, another character professing his love to his dreamgirl while a blade's jammed into his skull, and a headless man chucking up a deuce before his body goes limp. Actually, make that two indelible images the rest of Fantastic Fest's filmmakers somehow need to top.

Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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