‘People come to love hotels for sex. Many love hotels are in the love hotel district. In the 1990s, hookers worked the streets of Maruyama-cho Love Hotel district. A mystery took place there on the eve of the 21st Century.’ The on-screen text that introduces Sion Sono’s sexually-charged Guilty of Romance is one of the few pieces of definite information that the audience receives en route to a downward spiral of repressed desire. Although the Shibuya locale is recognisable enough, Sono allows his surrealistic impulses full reign, making this third installment in his ‘hate trilogy’ – following Love Exposure (2008) and Cold Fish (2010) – a film that is more interested in examining the extremes of female sexuality than in achieving a specific sense of time or space. Guilty of Romance hinges on an unreliable narrative concerning Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), the submissive wife of bestselling novelist Yukio Kikuchi (Kanji Tsuda), who is bored of her daily routine and chaste relationship. Yukio leaves home at 7am and does not return until 9pm, preferring to write at his office, so Izumi takes a supermarket job in order to get out of the house. While selling sausages, Izumi is spotted by a modelling agent who offers work that may involve nudity and she is soon engaging in a softcore shoot with a ‘model’ called Martini. Suddenly liberated, Izumi wanders the streets of Shibuya, leading to strange encounters that are sometimes as philosophical as they are physical. All of this occurs in the first thirty minutes.
Guilty of Romance is a typically incident-filled Sono experience, with the establishing scenes serving as a springboard for his particular brand of provocation, rather than as a narrative foundation. Another main character is introduced in the form of Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), a university lecturer in literature by day who prostitutes herself in the love hotel district by night on the grounds that women are always ‘selling’ themselves and may as well get paid for it, regardless of the amount received. As with Cold Fish, the scenario for Guilty of Romance was prompted by a true crime story: a woman from a respectable background with a position at the Tokyo Electric Power Company was found murdered in the Shibuya area, with the subsequent investigation revealing that the victim had turned to sex work for quick thrills and easy money. This woman was obviously the model for Mitsuko and a wraparound story has police detective Kazuko Yoshida (Miki Mizuno) investigating a Shibuya homicide involving ‘mixed corpses’ (half female body parts, parts, half plastic mannequin pieces), but Sono is less interested in solving the murder case than in depicting transgressive behaviour. Belle de Jour (1967), Freud and Kafka are all inspirations or reference points, with the latter being name-checked throughout as his anti-heroines seek ‘The Castle’, or sexual fulfilment through self-destruction. The use of baroque and classical music complements Sono’s intellectual musings, often removing the film from its sleazy downtown trappings, although the director certainly has fun with the gaudy love hotel interiors.
With so much going on, some of the supporting characters get lost in the shuffle, but Izumi’s husband reappears just in time to show that Sono has a master plan. Yukio’s profession as a novelist informs the film’s structure as Guilty of Romance is ordered into five chapters (Kikuchi Izumi, The Castle, Ozawa Mitsuko, The Enchantress Club and The End) which signal Izumi’s journey, or descent, while suggesting that not everything we are seeing is to be believed. Characters are more archetypes than relatable human beings, with Sono throwing in some knowing references to Kagurazaka’s Gravure Idols status and holding the attention of the curious viewer through a disregard for genre convention. This review refers to the ‘international cut’ of Guilty of Romance which has recently been released in the UK by Eureka and runs for 112 minutes, as opposed to the original 144 minute version that was included in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, while the shorter cut was sold to distributors at the film market. Sono has endorsed the ‘international cut’, but the role of Detective Yoshida is so reduced (her scenes were trimmed in favour of focusing on Izumi and Mitsuko) that the film sadly feels incomplete. Considering that the four-hour Love Exposure has become such a cult favourite, it is regrettable that Sono’s third ‘hate’ film has been handled in this manner. Yet even in truncated form, Guilty of Romance will linger in the memory much longer than most 2011 releases.