Himizu would almost certainly be a very different prospect had the Japanese earthquake and tsunami not occurred a month and a half before Sion Sono and his crew's shooting began in 2011. Based on Minoru Furuya's manga, Sono sat down and reworked the original screenplay in the light of the appalling tragedy which struck Japan in March of that year. For those who are familiar with Sono's work, you can only wonder what the original film might have looked like, should this inadvertent influence not have unleashed its terrible impact on the proud nation - and on Sono and his crew. Traditionally, Sono revels in toying with your assumptions, confounding your lazy expectations of moral outcomes and natural justice. The filmmaker subverts, twists, and tricks you, producing outcomes which demonstrate an active disregard for your expectations; in Sono's world, suffering is no guarantee of eventual reward, and wrongdoing bears no guarantee of punishment.
The result of time spent in Sono's dark, diabolical, fantasy playground is an experience which is deeply uncomfortable, utterly unpredictable, and frequently exhilarating, and the creative energy which propels his prolific output means his status as one of Japan's most edgy yet compelling filmmakers endures. In this light, Himizu is a fascinating prospect; how will the devastating events which affected Sono's homeland influence his filmic output? Will the rebel filmmaker soften his delightfully subversive critique of what he sees in his society?
Sono's last film before Himizu was Guilty of Romance, which was an especially provocative and subversive product, but despite the enthralling first half (and a wonderful performance from the delightful Megumi Kagurazaka, who also features here), the whole package was disappointingly uneven in tone, and the overtly amoral overtones proved difficult to accept, even for hardened fans of his work. Himizu carries forward many of the director's trademarks, such as the vivid splashes of colour, the depiction of a vast spectrum of Japanese society, and the sketching of caricatures who help to generate such a wonderfully bizarre world.
Yet there is certainly a softening here, as Himizu - the Japanese name for a species of mole - plays by more conventional rules, and whilst there's still an abundance of violence, the violence characterised here is less brutal than Guilty of Romance, and also of that depicted in the powerful Cold Fish. The story depicts the fortunes of schoolboy Sumida and his self-professed 'stalker', Keiko, their world circumscribed by the physical and metaphorical wreckage of the earthquake and tsunami. The world Sumida and Keiko survive within is a typically topsy turvy Sono world, shining an exposing light on the incongruent layers of Japanese society and documenting the resulting fallout as these generational layers erode, burn, and damage each other. Of course, the depicted fallout is one of exaggerated proportions, but nevertheless the illustration is sharp, and it's especially painful to witness not only a comprehensive disconnect between parents and children, but also the parent's complete disregard, distaste, and outright resentment towards their children.
The picture shows the shattered generations struggling to establish their identity in a country of rapid flux, and it's with not a little bitterness that parents blame their children for the denial of their own dreams, and also harbour deep-seated resentment of the younger generation who can still dream freely. The children, in turn, have witnessed the miserable destruction of their parent's generation, and in response, Sumida sets his target appropriately; he aims to be a respectable adult, with no grandiose dreams of ambitions, just a man who will be happy with his modest lot in life. He has seen the devastation unleashed by the ambitious dreams of his elder generation, and his reaction is to violently protect his right to desire normality and a morally upright life, refusing to lower himself by submitting to selfishness and overambitious dreams.
Himizu benefits from incredible performances by the two young leads, with Fumi Nikaidô breathing energy and vibrancy into Keiko as she desperately and devotedly tries to connect with Sumida. Sono gathers many of his favourite performers from earlier films such as Love Exposure and Cold Fish, and it's perhaps this familiarity from his cast that produces such strong and comfortable performances across the board. One of the biggest disappointments here is a reduced role for the fantastic Megumi Kagurazaka, who was a real shining light in the wavering Guilty of Romance (as well as playing an effective role in Cold Fish), but doesn't receive sufficient air time to shine here.
The final result is an unusual one; the film harnesses many of Sono's themes and stylistic techniques, yet whilst there are still many elements of cruelty, incisive societal critiques, and depictions of violence, there's more humanity here, a more sympathetic perspective on his subjects, and a warmer heart beating at the centre of this film. Some may consider this a compromise which the filmmaker should not have made, but the outcome is that Sono has created one of his most compelling pictures, and, perhaps more importantly, one of his most balanced films. It will be of interest to measure the tone of Sono's next two films, which have apparently already finished shooting, but in the meantime, audiences should seize the opportunity to experience a film exposing the director's positivity, subtlety, and sympathy, elements which aren't always easily identified in his other works.
Himizu was very much enjoyed by the audience and critics alike at the Venice Film Festival, with the two young leads both winning deserved awards. Third Window Films have treated this respected film with due respect and put together a healthy Blu-ray release which benefits from a strong transfer, and a slew of valuable extras on a 2nd DVD disc which don't fall into the bracket of tokenism.
The Blu-ray transfer is strong, with the image presented in a resolution of 1080p and the native aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The picture is consistent and strong throughout, and Sono's trademark vibrant and often garish colours are treated well here. There are some rare occasions during the relatively long running time where the transfer hasn't quite translated the colour shades as well as is possible, especially on the youngster's faces, where fine levels of pixelation can be seen. Additionally, some of the slightly darker scenes obscure the level of detail a little more than one might expect. Overall though, accuracy is certainly very respectable, and the presentation of the colour spectrum - an essential component of any Sono film - is excellent.
The included English subtitles, which can be toggled on and off via the menu system, are clear, well positioned, and free from grammatical and spelling errors as far as I could tell.
The audio here is similarly impressive, with the soundtrack presented in Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The audio isn't especially grandiose, but the tonal spectrum is well handled, with the higher end producing clear and clean tones, and the bass tones proving punchy yet penetrating too. There are some interesting aural techniques used and you can expect your audio setup to get a fairly decent workout, not from explosions and gun fire, but rather from the intimidating and claustrophobic walls of noise which play beneath the shots of tsunami wreckage, or of images of nature unleashing its power against the swaying trees.
The Himizu Trailer is rather curious. It opens with some footage and words surrounding the film's successful appearance at the Venice film festival, and then progresses into a fairly decent representation of the film, but using subtitles which are grammatically inferior to the subtitles in the actual film presentation itself.
The Making of segment forms the core of the extras selection, and at 72:47 it's a very generous piece. It's also a case of quality and quantity, as this document of the making of the film is constructed in a subtle and understated manner, with some judicious on-screen text linking the scenes together and helping to provide context for the viewer. We are afforded an insight into many people's lives as they helped produce this moving film, but the most absorbing here is that of Fumi Nikaidô, who plays young 'stalker' Keiko in the film. The young actress makes something of a journey as she suffers the high demands of Sono, and by the end of the film, the emotional toll of the schedule and demands of the eccentric director are clear. I do look forward to seeing her in future roles, as her future is surely bright.
Much like the rest of the release, the Deleted Scenes section is of a high standard, with 26 minutes worth of deleted scenes demonstrating how the film has been chopped down from the original cut of over 3 hours, down to the 2 hours and 10 minutes we see here. The deleted scenes are nonetheless fascinating, and are well presented with text commentary linking the scenes, and providing some background information. Some of the scenes - in particular the section where the gangsters from the bar pay Sumida a visit - would certainly have been welcome in the final cut, even with the additional running time required.
A 19 minute Denden Interview shows the Cold Fish and Himizu actor answering questions shown in text before each answer. He talks about his relationship with the director, and how they connect easily when Sono communicates what he needs from Denden. He is also asked a number of questions about his villainous role in Cold Fish, a performance which was admittedly disturbingly effective.
A set of Third Window Trailers (including other Sono films such as Cold Fish and Love Exposure) and a Weblink round up the generous allocation of extras.
Sion Sono's Himizu contains many of the director's trademarks and techniques, but Sono injects a beating heart of humanity which can't always be easily sensed in some of his other, more brutal films. Third Window have created a lovingly made package of the Japanese director's film, which includes the full film on Blu-ray, and a healthy allocation of extras, including a 70 minute documentary, on an additional DVD.