Some films richly deserve to be seen with an audience, and Japanese director Sion Sono’s Love And Peace is undoubtedly one of them. There were gasps of disbelief, nervous titters and stunned laughter at the screening your humble writer attended; the sounds of a group of people marvelling – or, perhaps, reeling – at the film’s sheer weirdness. Love And Peace is, in essence, the world’s first punk-pop kaiju comedy romance.
First: the plot. Thirty-something Ryo (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a human doormat. A shy clerk mercilessly ridiculed by his co-workers and even complete strangers on the train, Ryo secretly harbours dreams of becoming a rock star. While an equally quiet work colleague, Yuko (Kumiko Aso) appears to be the only person in the world who actually likes Ryo, his only true confidant is Pikadon, a tiny terrapin he alternately keeps in his pocket or plays board games with in his tiny flat. But during a cruel bout of bullying, Ryo’s colleagues tease him about his pet turtle to such an extent that Ryo, in one of his many rash moments, flushes the poor beast down the loo.
The story follows Pikadon for a while as he travels through Tokyo’s sewer system until he finds a sweet old man who keeps a subterranean refuge for unwanted pets and discarded, sentient toys. Meanwhile, a bizarre sequence of events lead to Ryo publically singing an acoustic song about his lost turtle. Because “Pikadon” means “flash bang” in Japanese, a talent scout mistakenly assumes that Ryo’s singing a protest song about the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the second world war. Too dazed to explain the truth, Ryo’s led off and turned into a rock star.
Believe it or not, that’s only a small part of what happens in Love And Peace. What follows is a kind of magical realist fantasy and pop culture satire with an affectionate nod to the Japanese monster movie classic, Gamera. The movie’s about the creation of two monsters, one physically dangerous due to its size and the other capable of causing its own kind of damage because of its growing fame and ego.
If you’ve seen any of Sion Sono’s earlier films, you’ll know they can be an acquired taste (witness the four-hour martial-arts-drama, Love Exposure) and that the director has a tendency to make his films rather swiftly. Love And Peace has the same digital, handheld camera look of his earlier films, and its puppet and model effects are wilfully shoddy. But somehow, all of this simply makes Sono’s latest film even more endearing. It constructs a world of talking stuffed cats, alcoholic old wizards and greedy record company executives that, after a few minutes in its company, actually begins to hold a warped sense of reality. Even more incredibly, Sono manages to make his menagerie of ungainly creatures genuinely likeable.
As Ryo, Hasegawa puts in a great dual performance as a put-upon dogsbody and a bejewelled, preening rock star; like everything else, his turn is amped up to 11, but he’s absolutely convincing in both guises. Beyond its impact as a surreal comedy, Love And Peace also makes incisive digs at pop culture’s goldfish-like lack of an attention span; no sooner have we latched onto one punk rock act or cool-looking new toy than another one’s come along to take its place.
The film also points out how our post-internet media landscape has a tendency to repeat everything until it’s stripped of its original intent: Ryo’s paen to his lost pet may have been borderline nonsensical, but his initial performance of it is genuinely hearfelt. When the record company gets hold of it, they change the lyrics (“Love And Peace” is a catchier chorus than “Pikadon”, they insist), smarten up the backing track and turn it into a radio-friendly hit. By the time Ryo – now christened Wild Ryo – has found number-one success, the song’s grown into a grotesque power-ballad with a 30-strong choir swaying along in the background.
Love And Peace does all this and more as it builds to a truly show-stopping conclusion. In its own unique, shambling way, this is surely a cult classic in the making.
Love And Peace was playing at the Glasgow Film Festival.