Tag, you’re it! We have another Sion Sono film to review and this one sees him venturing into the teen survival genre for the first time since Suicide Club (2002) and Noriko’s Dinner Table (2007). In the years since Love Exposure (2008), Sono has been accused of misogyny due to the portrayal of women in his films and he still doesn’t appear to be restraining himself, which is quite evident in his other 2015 film, The Virgin Psychics. But in Tag, he does something incredibly transcendent that makes this film so much more than expertly made exploitation, which goes to show that Sono is one of today’s most daring filmmakers.
Mitsuko (Reina Trendl) is a timid girl who resides in her own shell and writes poems. One day, she is on the bus with her female classmates on their way to summer camp but a cataclysmic event occurs and changes their lives forever. Surreal and strange things happen to the point where the rules of living have been bent, shocking bouts of violence are brought about in a sudden fashion, and all of this occurs exclusively to females. What has Mitsuko got herself into? What have all females got themselves into? Can they get out of it?
I realise that the above synopsis is incredibly ambiguous but I sincerely do not want to provide any spoilers since the film should be best experienced without any prior knowledge – I also loved the fact that the theatrical trailer does not spoil any of the film’s events. Having said that, the story is simply outlandish. Although it is based on a manga, Sono apparently has never read the source material and only used the premise as a jumping off point for his own creation. And boy, is it a creation! Tag is essentially a chase movie, not unlike Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and it could easily be seen as an exercise in gory exploitation, much like a grindhouse film, but Sono adds themes and elements that vilify the idea of female glorification in the media. And this is a surprise considering that Sono is very guilty of such glorification himself – everything from Japanese schoolgirl culture to video games to films is taken down here by Sono, who then tears them a new one in funny and thought-provoking ways. There is no male actor in sight until the third act and the only male seen before then has his face is covered with something that is, for a lack of a better word, bovine. All of the seemingly random events coalesce into an ending that borders on being out of this world.
Special mention goes to the cast, who add life to their supposed archetypes. Triendl is a dynamo as Mitsuko and she really sells fear and shock that easily engenders the audience’s sympathy. There’s a scene in the climax where she questions her identity and her self-being that almost made me want to hug her. Mariko Shinoda is Keiko, a woman who is a bride-to-be, veering towards the edge of anger and insanity. She has one of the best moments in the film when she has to fight her way out of her own wedding and the special make-up effects in this scene by gore-hound Yoshihiro Nishimura are spectacular to behold. Erina Mano (who is Sono’s new muse, appearing in four of his films this year alone) is great as Izumi, a marathon runner who has more intentions than just running to win. Their roles are great enough but what is amazing is the fact that they are technically relaying the same role through different parts of the film, and they are all in sync with their character’s development. They are all fleeing something that is not only a genuine threat but could metaphorically reflect an event in a person’s life that recalls the path from a teenage life to adulthood. To witness themes like this in such a bizarre film is what makes Sono such a great filmmaker.
The supporting cast are also great in their roles with the biggest standout being Yuki Sakurai as Aki. Working with Sono for the second time after the television series Minna Esper Dayo! (2013-), she exudes loyalty and courtesy as well as the strength to protect what is dearest to her. When she starts to fight back against evil forces, it is a hilarious, shocking and fist-pumping delight. She adds such heart alongside Triendl that everyone would want a best friend like her.
I also admired and enjoyed the cinematography, which was captured by drones. The aerial shots wring tension and always give a sense of dread, implying that something is always following the characters. The soundtrack is also great with its use of rock music that adds to the near-hypnotic proceedings, especially when the film starts to feel nostalgic or eerie.
After watching Tag, I wondered if this is the movie that Zack Snyder tried to make with Sucker Punch (2011) since it shares the same agenda of vilifying female glorification in the media. But unlike Sucker Punch, the world of Tag is much more haunting, immersive and downright gutsy in its execution. This is by far the best Japanese film I’ve seen this year – a film about a girl’s journey for survival that simultaneously surprises, shocks, thrills, ridicules, and provokes, all in a scant running time of 85 minutes.
Tag is showing as part of the Japanese Film Festival 2015 Australia which runs from October 14 to December 6. See the festival website for screening times and venues.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.