Strange Circus
(Kimyo na sakasu) (2005)
Directed by Sion Sono

Artistic Value: * * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * * ½

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At the age of twelve, Mitsuko (Rie Kuwana) is informed by her father, Gozo (Hiroshi Oguchi), that she has become a woman. Subsequently, whenever he has sex with his wife, Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki), Gozo hides the girl in a cello case, into which he has cut a peephole, so that she can watch. The man soon, however, decides to switch the two out, putting his wife in the case and forcing her to watch him having sex with Mitsuko. Instead of being enraged at her husband, Sayuri grows jealous of her daughter and begins abusing her and even trying to kill her, actions which eventually lead to her own apparently accidental death. Mitsuko, left alone with her father, continues to be sexually abused by him, but, after jumping off a building in an attempt at suicide, is left crippled. No longer desired by her father, the teenaged girl (now played by Mai Takahashi), watches the man engage in sexual liaisons with a variety of women, while being neglected by him herself, which neglect prompts her to dramatics acts of self mutilation (such a as stabbing her legs with a kitchen knife when the man, being busy having sex with some young woman, ignores her pleas that he help her go to the toilet so that she can urinate). Suddenly, this tale is revealed to be that told in a novel written by a crippled novelist, Taeko (Masumi Miyazaki), but, thanks to various hints and the investigations of the author's androgynous new assistant, Yuji (Issei Ishida), it becomes apparent that the narrative might not be fictional.

Sion Sono's Strange Circus is a beautiful, complex, and deeply disturbing film. It is a pleasure to watch.

For almost the whole of its duration, the story the director tells is extremely well crafted. Sono mingles fantasy and reality and one person's identity with that of another. Mitsuko and her mother, for instance, seem often to merge into a single individual so that it is not clear whether they are two persons or just one. The result is a narrative in which the viewer, though aware that he is only seeing some part of reality, is never certain which part of the tale is true and which is dream or deception. I will grant that Strange Circus's last act does get somewhat contrived and does tag on a few too many twists and surprises (along with so much exposition that I was reminded of the ending of an episode of Scooby-Doo). Fortunately, the movie is never so flawed that it fails to be intriguing. In fact, the viewer is almost certain to be enthralled by Strange Circus from its beginning until its end.

Of course, the frequently unsettling themes that the director has included ensure that the viewer will be both so horrified and so disgusted that he is captivated by the tale. In particular, the sexual abuse Mitsuko is subjected to by her father, as well as the physical abuse her mother inflicts upon her, are both shown in such ways that the viewer feels as though he is actually experiencing the nastiness of the girl's existence. The first act of the film, in which these are presented in great detail, is, consequently, unlikely to be forgotten by the viewer and so gives the entire film a dark and affecting tone.

What is more, Strange Circus is consistently beguiling visually. The director reveals on the screen one sumptuous, bizarre, or disturbing image after another, all of which, even when repugnant, are beautifully realized. From its earliest scenes, centered on a lavish circus-like stage performance, to Taeko's ornate office, which looks like a wizard's lair, to countless other odd visions, Strange Circus is alive with such a variety of things that are likely to catch the viewer's eye that it is hard to imagine anyone not being entranced by the film.

Happily, the performances of the leads are as good as are the movie's other elements. All are exceptional. Not only do the actors manage to create intriguing characters, but they keep these fluid enough so that the moviegoer, though sympathizing with them, and finding himself caught up in their lives, is never certain about exactly who has done what or even who each person really is.

Strange Circus is a fascinating film.

Review by Keith Allen

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