Stepping out of the Factory Theatre at one in the morning, it’s hard to snap back into something as boring as real life after being immersed in Japanese auteur Sion Sono’s latest ultra-violent masterpiece, Tokyo Vampire Hotel. The feeling is like coming down from a hangover, and after almost three hours of gore-drenched fever dreams, it’s difficult to form coherent opinions. “So… what’d you think?”, I turned to my friend Stanley. He looked down at the pavement for a while, and then up at the sky, and finally turned to me with an expression of panic. “I don’t know.”
Sono has never been a traditional filmmaker, although it would be remiss to describe him as merely non-traditional. It’s far more accurate to describe his work as generally fucking weird. Don’t take that as an expression of derision though—I’m a huge fan. His 2008 magnum opus, Love Exposure, an Orpheus-like epic about the downfall and redemption of an upskirt photographer, is one of my favourite films of all time. Despite its ludicrous premise, Love Exposure floored me with its compelling, emotional narrative, and electrifying cinematography.
Backed by a seemingly endless Amazon pay cheque and featuring a cast of hundreds of largely amateur actors, Tokyo Vampire Hotel, however, is an entirely different beast. Eschewing all plot, character development, and even coherence at points, the film is not so much style over substance as it is style as substance; it’s absolutely self-aware of its own ridiculousness and revels in it, pushing the envelope further with every new scene. Like a Gaspar Noé film, except jacked up on even more acid, Tokyo Vampire Hotel blends the aesthetics of neon-drenched Japan and gothic Eastern Europe, with a good deal of gratuitous ultraviolence to boot. It’s almost exhausting to watch: the tone and genre change every few minutes, shifting seamlessly to and from vampiric horror, perverted rom-com, martial arts thriller and teen drama. The soundtrack too reflects the film’s jitters in style, featuring everything from kitschy Romanian ballads to bass-pumping synth-wave bangers.
I could tell you that the film is about a war between vampires and humans within a pocket dimension inside another vampire’s vagina, but that wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this story’s absurdist folly. Given the version I watched was the theatrical cut of a much longer 10-episode miniseries, it came across as though plot elements were hacked and chopped. As the film ramps to a climax, betrayals and plot twists fly from the screen in mere seconds. Even paying close attention, you’ll likely get lost anyway. This is not a harsh criticism, however—it is clear that story was always a secondary consideration to Sono and to the manifestation of his theatrical version.
Tokyo Vampire Hotel is cinema as pure spectacle and blithe sensation. It’s impressionistic, gory and incredibly fun. When you think it can’t possibly get any stranger, Sono finds a way to whip up a further escalation. And though the acting is campy and nothing quite makes sense, I’ll be damned if I didn’t say that it was an absolute blast to watch.