Mentions of the Japanese Horror (or J-horror) trend from the 2000s conjures up images of ghostly jump scares and adolescent girls with unnaturally long hair and blackened eyes. But the Japanese horror world goes fathoms beyond that trend, and it is one of the best places to seek out strange or unusual horror films unlike anything we see stateside.
I had been a huge fan of director Sion Sono’s other works including SUICIDE CLUB, NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE, and HAIR EXTENSIONS. But these terrifying tales look like kiddie shows compared to the mind fuck that is STRANGE CIRCUS. I wondered before I first saw the film why this title had never had more exposure in the US. I quickly learned the film is too weird and disturbing for many standard horror audiences, even the extreme ones. Yet, the film is quite possibly one of the most visually beautiful pieces of cinema from the larger J-horror cycle, bathing the brutality in a colorful palate that somehow finds a scenic serenity amongst the weird horror and sex.
Mitsuko is a sexually abused teen who is forced to participate in her father’s twisted games…well, that might be the case. Or is she an eccentric wheel-chair bound novelist who has a secret room and talks to a cello case? Reality is warped as multiple stories unwind and twist together, all accented with frequent trips to an equally bizarre circus. We see the main character in several different realities, but are never given a real cohesive track indicating what is real versus an elaborate fiction created by the questionable real wheel-chair bound novelist. This sounds frustrating for the viewer, but it is actually quite mesmerizing, even tantalizing, as the scenes seamlessly float from possible reality to reality.
This film never stops punching you, not for one minute. STRANGE CIRCUS is technically a mystery, but it relentlessly pushes everything to the utmost points of perversity and gore, and then it keeps going. It’s not brilliant just for its ability to incorporate perversity and controversial subject matter into a compelling storyline; the film is also gorgeous, steeped in vivid textural surrealism and a unique visual ascetic that makes the grotesque imagery and disturbing storyline simultaneously palatable and putrid.
Just know that the film aims to trick you. I have heard quite a few fans describe STRANGE CIRCUS as a Japanese equivalent of David Lynch’s FIRE WALK WITH ME. I’d say anything David Lynch oriented is an apt comparison. STRANGE CIRCUS shifts and turns fearlessly. The viewer rarely knows exactly what is going on and from whose perspective the story is being told. STRANGE CIRCUS also has echoes of the Japanese films VISITOR Q and RAMPO. And if all this mind melting wasn’t enough to turn your brain to goo, STRANGE CIRCUS strives to poke and prod at the viewers “shock” button, focusing on remarkably disturbing subject matter in a viscerally brutal manner and never once waning in intensity. Just when the audience becomes adjusted to the incest-laden plot, more and more controversial subjects are heaped on top (fetishes, amputations, transsexuality, suicide, and voyeurism), all in a surprisingly well-constructed, visually striking manner.
While many of the films discussed in this column will be somewhat “forgotten” by time, I seriously doubt anyone who watches STRANGE CIRCUS will ever forget it. For this film, a more apt qualifier is “obscure”. And also like many of the films this column will highlight, STRANGE CIRCUS is not for everyone. It’s not even for a medium group. I will place this movie in a very small and specific category of incredibly bizarre and highly disturbing art films. Reserved for viewers who seek out films that not only push the envelope but slice you with it, come and visit the STRANGE CIRCUS.