Channeling Chaos – An Interview with Sion Sono
Interview by David F. Hoenigman
This summer Sion Sono, the writer/director of Suicide Club, will travel to Norway to begin work on his first Hollywood film, Lords of Chaos. Based on Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s 1998 book of the same name, the movie depicts the violence surrounding the Norwegian black metal subculture of the early ’90s. The scene grew increasingly out of hand as its members delved into Satanism and church burnings, culminating in the stabbing to death of Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth, aka “Euronymous.” Aarseth’s band mate Varg Vikernes was convicted of the crime and served 15 years in prison. Sono discusses why he was drawn to this project and how his own chaotic past has fueled his writing. This interview was conducted in Sion Sono’s Tokyo apartment on May 3rd, 2009.
photo by Benjamin Parks
3:AM: Please tell us about Lords of Chaos.
SS: Two years ago I wanted to make a new movie in Hollywood, America and I went to Los Angeles. I met many producers but it was a failure, nobody answered me, but one year later one producer brought me a project. If you are interested in this project, let’s hang out, I want to hang out with you. I read the book Lords of Chaos, I liked it & answered, “let’s do it”. But the first script was too maniac (esoteric) for normal audiences, so I rewrote the script and now I’m almost finished. Maybe this year at Cannes Film Festival our producers will present this project.
3:AM: This year?!
SS: This month. This project Lords of Chaos will be presented to the film market section. There’s the film market section and the competition section. The producers will present this film to the film market section to try to get a bit more money.
3:AM: So if someone at Cannes is interested in investing in the making of this movie you can receive more money?
SS: Yes. Almost all the money is prepared for this picture but we need a little more, because in this movie many churches burn. It costs, it’s tough, maybe five churches will be burned.
3:AM: You’ll burn real churches!?
SS: No. We must build them.
3:AM: Oh, I see. It’s very expensive.
SS: Five churches are very expensive so we must get more money to make this film. So we’ll go to the Cannes Film Festival film market.
3:AM: So if Cannes is interested in the movie you’ll show it at Cannes next year? Or two years from now? Or…?
SS: When? Maybe…I don’t know. I have no idea. Maybe next year’s Berlin Film Festival or Cannes Film Festival. I don’t know. We will shoot this film in August or September. It will be complete in December. Berlin Film Festival is in February. Cannes is this month (May)… I can’t decide. Maybe Cannes or Berlin.
3:AM: Usually you make films very fast. Suicide Club you made in six weeks…or? A very short time, right?
SS: No. Three weeks or four weeks. Ah, one month. Ah, only shooting. The script (took) six months. Shooting (took) one month. Editing (took) one month. Mixing (took) almost six months.
3:AM: Why do you think they chose you to direct Lords of Chaos?
SS: Maybe the producer watched my movies, for example: Suicide Club, Strange Circus…he loved Suicide Club. This film, this project, is similar to Suicide Club. So…
3:AM: It’s a good fit.
3:AM: How is this story similar to Suicide Club?
SS: Ah, …everyone’s disappointed.
3:AM: You told me before about the (recently paroled) bass player Varg Vikernes, who’s threatening to kill the people who make the Lords of Chaos movie. Are you worried about that situation?
SS: Ah, a little. I’m not really worried. The more dangerous a project, the more interesting it is for me.
SS: This film is modern, contemporary. The danger is proof of that.
3:AM: So the Vikernes’ threats make you feel the movie is contemporary and important?
SS: Modern, up-to-date.
3:AM: So the story is from the early 90’s, but still aspects of the story continue.
SS: Actually, today’s criminal acts, it’s always – no reason why. Young people did it, this book (Lords of Chaos) for example, or Columbine – normal people couldn’t understand why they did it. So, the Lords of Chaos story is old, but still relevant. I hope that this film is not only nostalgic or historical (for black metal fans) but also sheds light on modern problems (for everyone). Wherever it happens – young people’s mysterious (extreme) actions.
3:AM: So you hope the movie can have a broad meaning.
3:AM: Do you like death metal or black metal?
SS: No. I’m studying it now. I’m listening every day. But I love Mahler, Beethoven, Mozart. Frankly, I don’t like black metal. Yes, sometimes ten minutes sounds good, but I soon get bored. Honestly. Frankly.
3:AM: On the set you will have to speak English, right? You’ll be the only Japanese crew member.
SS: Yes, but now I’m thinking I need a Japanese cameraman.
3:AM: So the cameraman is the most important person for you to communicate with?
SS: Yes, my system is very strange. I can’t explain exactly – I don’t need a beautiful picture, I don’t need a great view or a great shot. I need only actors acting. And I almost always use hand-held cameras, so if the cameraman cannot understand this style, I’m worried. Everything in this project is challenging for me, so for only one thing I don’t want a challenge. The actors are foreigners, almost all the staff are foreigners, the producers are foreigners – this is very challenging, so I want one Japanese cameraman.
3:AM: So will you ask a cameraman you’ve worked with before?
SS: Yes, on Noriko’s Dinner Table, Love Exposure and Balloon Club. He knows my style, he understands. If the cameraman’s a foreigner, I’m scared. I’ve heard that in American filmmaking style everyone quits for the day in the evening. Oh my God! This is scary. Japanese crews are very strict, or serious. If everyone is working, you don’t stop. But American crews… “Oh, 5:00, we’re finished!” – exactly on quitting time even if we’re filming. I can’t believe it. It’s unbelievable. This system’s a little scary. If one scene, the voltage between the actor and actress is high but…it doesn’t matter because it’s quitting time, that’s a concern. So…that’s pretty strange. If we work another 30 minutes we can get a good scene, but…NO! -it’s a little strange.
3:AM: So maybe you will have to be a strict director.
SS: And the Norwegian crew may move slowly. I don’t know, but it seems Norwegians are a bit laidback. Not running. Last year I went to Norway, I saw carpenters working very slowly. Oh, I thought maybe it’s tough…too slowly. So I’m afraid of this, so just a Japanese cameraman I thought I needed. He’s very speedy, maybe all the crew will be amazed when they look at him. They’ll say, “Oh my God”. Perhaps when they look at him, everyone becomes speedy too.
3:AM: Was it a goal for you to make a Hollywood movie?
SS: Step by step, day by day, I made many Japanese films. Gradually I began to think about this, about making a Hollywood movie. Because my movies are very dangerous and weird in Japan. Strange Circus is an incest movie, movies about suicide, erotic movies, this kind of stuff, sexual and criminal stuff. So Japanese audiences …every time, always are thinking about me – he’s a weird director, he’s crazy, he’s a pervert – but Strange Circus won an audience prize in Berlin. In Berlin, regular people like my movies, they’re not especially weird. So…(because of this) Suicide Club – Japanese audiences hate this movie. Almost all Japanese people hate the movie Suicide Club. They always say – this movie is bullshit.
3:AM: Bullshit? So they think it’s not true? Or they think maybe you are exaggerating about young Japan?
SS: Outrageous. Extravagant. So step by step I came to think about making a Hollywood film. Or any other country than Japan.
3:AM: Europe is OK?
SS: European or Korean. Korean movies are very cruel. Cruel is good. Old Boy.
3:AM: I’ve heard of it. Good movie?
3:AM: Do you think that in Korea people in general like extravagant, outrageous movies?
SS: I don’t know, I’ve only watched Korean movies. And…Korean producers have already called me and said, “let’s make a movie together”.
3:AM: Oh, really?
SS: Maybe this year or next year I will make a Korean movie, one or two films. I don’t like Japanese audiences. So…we hate each other.
3:AM: How about other Japanese filmmakers?
SS: Yes. Japanese movies – almost all I don’t like. I don’t like. Because almost all Japanese movies are love drama, crying drama, and…sickness movie.
3:AM: Oh, someone’s dying.
SS: Yes, couple – both of the couple die. Crying movies – not poison. Because there’s no poison. No poison. It’s bad. Novels and films need much poison.
3:AM: So your movies have poison?
SS: Yes. Novels, movies need poison. Japanese movies have no poison. Or (only) little poison.
3:AM: Poison – for example, what? Your definition of poison is what?
SS: Film? I like Fassbinder, a German director, his films. American – John Cassavetes. I don’t like Yasujirō Ozu. In Japan I hate Yasujirō Ozu. Everyone likes him but… because Ozu’s a god of Japanese movies. The Anti-god. The Antichrist.
3:AM: His movies are simple family stories.
SS: This is basically Japanese movies. Almost all Japanese movies are about families, about couples, about getting married, about the bond of parents, sons and daughters. Ozu’s – all including Japanese films. So I don’t like this. Yes, always I’m interested in families and Noriko’s Dinner Table is about families…So…Love Exposure too. And, ah…but the contemporary family, almost all aren’t that peaceful or close – they’re broken. Every day parents kill children, children kill parents. We always hear this news. It’s not Ozu’s world. But Japanese movies are in the tradition of Ozu’s family. The peaceful family. The lovely family. They always make these movies. Peaceful family. Lovely couple. This is not real.
3:AM: You think Ozu’s films are irrelevant?
3:AM: They don’t reflect real society?
SS: No. So I hope to make a film like Lords of Chaos – this is real society, real young people. They were not foolish, Mayhem’s members, they had intelligence and they were thinking about many things. So…I want to show this. It can happen anywhere. Crazy people, musicians, normal people – whoever, wherever. I want to draw these people, in Japan, in America, in Norway. I want to draw universal young people.
3:AM: Do you think the father in Noriko’s Dinner Table is a bad guy?
SS: Every film, always, broken family movie – always the father is a bad guy. For example – drinking, ignoring the son, busy, busy…but I watch the news about parents killing children, children killing parents. In these cases, the father is not a bad guy, they’re normal people, teachers. But sometimes strict, sometimes too much care, there’s… the father’s always thinking about the family as a photograph. Like in Noriko’s Dinner Table, the mother paints a picture and everyone’s smiling. So… the criminal incidents that occur within the families, preachers, teachers, strict parents and too much care. The family’s like a decoration or a display, so the children hate the decoration, the peaceful picture, the peaceful photograph. They want to run away to outside this picture. So sometimes it happens. Incidents or accidents happen. I thought of this when I wrote Noriko’s Dinner Table, I took care to make the father seem like a good guy, and the audience will like him, but the children didn’t like him. Outside looking in, it’s a peaceful family, inside it’s not peaceful. Everyone in the family are good people: good daughters, good mother, good father, good sister. But – it happened. Something happened. It’s like reality. Drunk father, mother chasing men, sister on drugs -that’s fantasy. Real broken families are normal and move step by step. It’s how they live.
3:AM: When I watched that movie I felt sorry for the father. Do you want people to feel sorry for that father?
SS: Yes, I hope so, because I feel the same thing, but shit happens.
3:AM: In Strange Circus the father is obviously very evil, but I thought in both movies (Strange Circus and Noriko’s Dinner Table) that the mother just kind of goes along with the father. So…do you think the father has more control over the family than the mother – always?
SS: Yes, this is a fact, my father was very strict. Very very strict. He was… he controlled everything, we were like slaves. So.. in these two movies, one is an evil guy, one is a normal guy but it’s the same thing, they’re always controlling their family. That’s important, father was strict, controlled them, they’re not free.
3:AM: Where the family lives in Noriko’s Dinner Table is actually your hometown, right? Toyokawa in Aichi Prefecture. So you filmed those parts in Toyokawa?
SS: Not real. When I shot this film, I wanted to film in Aichi, but now Toyokawa is a very up-to-date city. The station is new, not like in the old days, so I changed the location. We filmed in Izu, it’s still an old town like Toyokawa used to be, so we filmed there.
3:AM: Do you feel you are Noriko? You too ran away to Tokyo.
SS: Yeah. Real thing. When I was 17 years old I ran away from Toyokawa to Tokyo. It’s semi-autobiographical. Soon I came back home because I had no money. One month or two months I stayed in Tokyo. Then I came home like a poor rabbit.
3:AM: Where did you stay in Tokyo?
SS: Actually, when I arrived at Tokyo Station, it became night. I sat in the park at midnight. One woman came to me and asked, “Do you know where the hotel is?” A strange woman, so I said, “I don’t know”, but I found a hotel and I took her there. And she said to me, “Could you please stay with me?” I was a cherry boy, you know, I was a virgin. I thought, “Oh my God! – Tokyo is a very very strange world.” OK, I kept it in my mind – today I finish my virgin days. As soon as we came into the room, she pulled out big scissors. I was surprised. “Actually I want to die”, she said. I couldn’t believe what was happening. “I want to die now but I didn’t want to be alone, I was looking for someone to die with.”
3:AM: Really? She wants the two of you to die together?
SS: Yeah. Yeah. Oh my God! So I said “please please don’t kill me, I’ll do anything for you if you don’t kill me.” She said, “Tomorrow we go back to my hometown, there’s my mother in the countryside. You pretend to be my husband in front of my mother.” I said, “Ah. OK,OK” and she said, “You stay with me and my mother in the countryside”. OK. OK. So…we went to the countryside and I met her mother. She introduced me, “This is my husband”. Her mother was surprised, “Looks like a boy”. I was 17.
3:AM: How old was the woman? Your wife.
SS: In her 30s, maybe, I don’t know. Not so young.
3:AM: So did the mother believe that you were her husband?
SS: Yes, hmm. I don’t know.
3:AM: How long did you stay with them?
SS: Ah, I forget how long I stayed, because it was a weird, strange world, so I forget. I felt it was a very long time but this is not true, maybe two or three weeks. But one day I said, “I want to go back to Tokyo”. She understood that it was time for me to go back, she was kind, and she gave me about ￥30,000 (about $300 U.S. dollars). So I went back to Tokyo and I watched the movie A Clockwork Orange for the first time. I’ve never forgotten this movie.
3:AM: You watched it in the theatre in Tokyo? So…1971?
SS: This was a 1979 encore edition. I’m not that old.
3:AM: Why did you like A Clockwork Orange?
SS: If I watched it in another situation, it might not have impacted me as much. But in this situation -it’s good, I’m lonely, I’m wondering whether or not I’m a criminal. This situation -very important movie, it was emotional, I was moved.
3:AM: So at the time you thought maybe you were a criminal but when you watched the movie you felt/thought – “No, they are criminals, I’m a good guy”? -no? what did you think?
SS: Whenever – I’m prepared to be a criminal. So I was Alex, if I were Alex, I would have done the same thing. So yes, I sympathized with him.
3:AM: Was the woman very beautiful?
SS: No, not ugly but not beautiful, normal. In the end I didn’t fuck her. I was still a cherry boy, still a virgin, still intact.
3:AM: Interesting story.
SS: And I came back to Tokyo and I came into a cult. A cult church. I came back to Tokyo and watched the movie, and I… at the station, one guy asked me – “Do you believe in God?”, I thought if I told him I believed in God he’d give me some food. I answered, “Of course, I do”, I was hungry, so we went to church and we had lunch. So I stayed in the church. Ah, this influenced Love Exposure.
3:AM: This experience?
SS: During lessons about God in class I began to crack. I went into the classroom and cleaned the church. Work and lessons. Every day lessons and study about God and cleaning the church.
3:AM: It was Christianity?
SS: No. A cult. Yes. Weird uncle, disturbing older guy. He was God, priest. All gods together – he is actually God. And the believers, strange people. Always when the teacher was teaching at the blackboard – I couldn’t write it down without laughing.
3:AM: How many people were in his cult?
3:AM: Young people?
SS: Half is young people, other were middle-aged. Everyone believed in him.
3:AM: Was it easy to leave the cult?
SS: One day, I couldn’t stand anymore, so I got out, outside. One believer found me but she was a older woman. I was scared she’d call someone, but she said, smiling “you’ll be back soon”. She believed someday I’d come back to the church –no, no, it was really goodbye. I ran away, but this cult was very very strong. I thought they’d absolutely catch me. It’s strange, one day, after I’d returned to my parents’ house, there was a letter on the table.
3:AM: From the cult? They knew your home address? So you gave it to them?
SS: Why they knew my address I didn’t know. I have no idea. This cult is very famous and strong. Once you enter you can never come back to the social world. I was lucky, I got away. Next – a terrorist group, I wanted to escape from the cult and thought I could never get away from them so I made up my mind to go into a terrorist group. Terrorist group? Antisocial group? –I’m not sure.
3:AM: What did they do?
SS: They were against the expanding of Narita airport. Various things, they were communists, a super communist group. When I went into this group, they were against the building of a second terminal at Narita airport. So I went into this group, and yes, the cult group never came. So it was a success, but it was the second new problem. All day against the riot police, against, every day, very painful, painful. I had no policy, no beliefs, but I was hungry. I needed food. So I fought against the riot police, just to eat. Weird, huh? The only problem – I am hungry. First time – I’m a cult member, next – I’m a protester. Totally no meaning.
3:AM: So you didn’t believe in religion or politics? You only wanted to eat?
SS: Yes, for a living. So I ran away from this group, I had no idea what to do next, so I turned back towards my hometown. This experience was very important. Even now, when I write the next script, every time, I remember everything and this is – useful. This experience.
3:AM: When you pretended to be the woman’s husband I think it’s very similar to events in Noriko’s Dinner Table.
SS: Yes. It was a very important experience. If I stayed in normal life I wouldn’t have fought riot police, joined a cult, or been an imposter family member. So it was good.
3:AM: It was an education for you.
3:AM: When you went back home what did your parents say? What did your father say to you?
SS: Hmm…this is strange, I’ve forgotten, maybe… always he was ticked off, easily angered. Perhaps this was a big deal so he didn’t get angry – I don’t know. He could have thought that if he got angry, soon I’d take off again. I don’t know. I forgot. So…Yes. What? What did you ask me?
3:AM: How did your father react?
SS: Oh, yes. I forget.
3:AM: Then you entered Hosei University, but you quit. Why did you drop out of university?
SS: So… this was a trick. My parents were teachers. They were relieved I entered university, but actually I wanted to make my film on 8 millimeter camera. So…yes, when I entered university, as soon as I entered university, I started to make my film on 8mm, soon I made four films and I am Sono Sion!! won a prize at the PIA Film Festival, and the next year I won a scholarship, so I made Bicycle Sighs on 16mm camera. Bicycle Sighs is my official debut film not including the 8mm works, but there are many of those. Yes, Bicycle Sighs and The Room and now…. I was tired of making independent films, because I have to get money for next film, next film, next film. This was expensive, I was tired. In 1990 I went to America, …San Francisco. So I learned films again in San Francisco.
3:AM: You went to school there?
SS: Yes. Berkeley University. I watched a lot of films. B cinema only.
3:AM: Why B cinema?
SS: In Japan, I’d studied normal movies. I wanted to learn B movies. When I was a boy I watched many B movies, but I forgot them when I learned academic and historical movies. I wanted to forget these normal movies, so I watched B movies, C movies, D movies.
3:AM: Yeah, so like what?
SS: Two Thousand Maniacs.
SS: Almost all horror movies, porno movies, yes. I was lucky, near my apartment there was a video shop with tons of B movies and porno movies. Every day I watched around five B movies. So I learned, and I made up my mind if I go back to Japan I will make a movie just like these B movies. I hope Japanese hate me. This is a hate movie. I hope almost all people hate this movie. This title is Suicide Club. So I made it. Yes, and truly every Japanese person hates it. American people, European people, they like it.
3:AM: Especially Americans?
SS: I don’t know.
3:AM: How long did you stay at Berkeley?
SS: 15 months.
3:AM: You didn’t study? You only watched movies?
SS: Yes. Movies were my study, so I didn’t learn English.
3:AM: Did you have many friends?
SS: Yes, all my friends were American. There were no Japanese.
3:AM: San Francisco’s a liberal place, right?
SS: L.A. is different, the young people are conservative and boring. They’re all watching Diehard in L.A. So yes, it was a good influence, because these American friends were hippies, so we watched B movies together. They found B movies for me and we watched them together, it was good. Still now, it’s useful.
3:AM: So these were big experiences in your life, when you came to Tokyo and when you went to San Francisco.
SS: Yes, my films changed when I got back to Japan. Before I went to America I made art house movies, but when I came back to Japan, Suicide Club…etc. – it’s not art house, it’s weird entertainment, they’re not only art house and not only entertainment. They’re black entertainment.
3:AM: Did they show Suicide Club in theatres in Japan?
3:AM: In Tokyo & Osaka, all over Japan?
SS: I don’t know. I didn’t know.
3:AM: Some Japanese people must like your films, right?
SS: Yeah, some.
3:AM: I’ve never seen Love Exposure, can you tell me about the movie?
SS: It’s a corpus of my ten years from Suicide Club to Hair Extensions, everything mixed: about family, about eroticism, everything -it’s a nabe ryouri (Japanese stew), a mixture.
3:AM: Love Exposure is the third in your pervert trilogy: Strange Circus, Hair Extensions, Love Exposure.
SS: Yes, a trilogy, but not only perverted stuff, Love Exposure is more than that: family problems, about the cult in Japan…Yes, strict father, he controls his family, and…yes, not only pervert trilogy, also family, cult and everything, entertainment elements, car action, Hong Kong action, porno movies, yes.
3:AM: The movie is four hours long. Did you plan to make it that long?
SS: Yeah, I convinced my producer. At last the producer understood the length issue, it’s four hours, it was tough to convince him. Sometimes he’d say, “can we make it three hours or two and a half hours?” -many times I tried, but I couldn’t.
3:AM: The reaction at Berlin – it won awards.
SS: I am sarcastic, every day, always. So…yes, Berlin people were glad to watch my movie. Everyone said it was good but I didn’t believe them. I thought, “this is the format”. So I came back to Japan and I heard the film won two prizes. It was the first time I believed. Someone called me on my cell phone.
3:AM: You haven’t received the awards yet. Or you haven’t seen them?
SS: Yes, someone keeps them, still, somewhere.
3:AM: Someday you will get them?
SS: Yes, I hope so.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Filmmaker Sion Sono was born in Toyokawa, Aichi, Japan. He began his career as a poet, gained acclaim for his early films Bicycle Sighs (1990) and The Room (1992), organized the 2,000 member guerrilla street poetry performance Tokyo GAGAGA in 1997, and has made the controversial films Suicide Club, Strange Circus, Noriko’s Dinner Table, Hair Extensions and Love Exposure.
Hoenigman was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, but has lived in Tokyo, Japan since 1998. He is the author of the novel Burn Your Belongings and the organizer of the bimonthly PAINT YOUR TEETH event held in Tokyo, a celebration of experimental music, literature and dance. He is currently working on his second novel, Squeal For Joy.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 28th, 2009.