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Strange Circus DVD Review

Written by Eric Strauss

DVD released by TLA Releasing

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Written and directed by Sion Sono
2005, Region 1 (NTSC), 108 minutes, Not rated

Masumi Miyazaki as Taeko/Sayuri/Mitsuko (as an adult)
Issei Ishida as Yuji Tamiya
Rie Kuwana as Mitsuko (as a child)
Mai Takahashi as Mitsuko (as a teen)
Fujiko Tomorowo Taguchi as the chief editor

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Anyone who wants evidence to support the stereotype of the bizarre, repression-revealing Japanese film need look no further than the works of Sion Sono.

The writer/director of Suicide Club can certainly fashion an unforgettable setpiece and draw viewers into a strange and discomfiting world.

Who can forget that film's iconic moment: A group of schoolgirls, holding hands and stepping in front of an oncoming train.

Strange Circus, another Sono film brought Stateside under TLA's "Danger After Dark" label, is a different kind of film, but even more bizarre. I get the feeling it's meant to be — for all its weirdness, Suicide Club was almost police-procedural in its plotting; Strange Circus, on the other hands, starts off with a scene that basically says, "Yeah, this is going to be trippy. Fasten your seatbelts."

And it all gets weird from there.

The best plot summary I can give you is this:

There's a little girl named Mitsuko (played by Rie Kuwana and Mai Takahashi, depending on the scene). She's forced to watch her father Gozo (an effectively creepy Hiroshi Ohguchi) have sex with her mother Sayuri (the marvelous Masumi Miyazaki). Then she's raped by her father.

Then she goes through some suicide attempts. And accidentally kills her mother. Maybe. Either way, she has a breakdown of some kind, and starts psychologically trading places with her mother — with Miyazaki appearing in schoolgirl uniform, surrounded by middle-schoolers.

At one point, the little girl is in a wheelchair. At another point, it's Miyazaki in the wheelchair.

And then, just when you start thinking everything's going to go all Psycho, Miyazaki reappears as Taeko, an author — wheelchair-bound — who's writing a book about… Mitsuko.

The author gets involved with a young man representing the publisher (Issei Ishida) and, well, things get even more confusing from there, if that's possible.

Trust me: The plot didn't get lost in translation. You'll spend the entire 108 minutes of film trying to cling by the fingernails to any semblance of understanding of what's going on.

But really, the Sono experience isn't about making sense. Trust me. I've seen two Sono films, and the score is Sono 2, Sense 0.

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What the Sono experience is about is the visuals. And just like Suicide Club — albeit in a different fashion — there are moments of sheer brilliance that dance across the screen. Not necessarily beautiful, unique imagery in the sense of a Dark City or City of Lost Children. But visual feasts nonetheless.

Witness the moment when Mitsuko is called to the office of the principal, her father. Gozo is watching a porn film on a projector aimed at the wall with the door. So as the daughter stands there, he is shrouded in darkness, and the flickering, indistinct sex is flashing across her face and the wall behind her. When he rises to hold her, and talk about how Daddy is a man, and Mitsuko — all of 12 years old — is a woman…

Ugh. You can't help but be moved. To shudder.

There's a scene where Yuji, the publicist, attends some kind of meeting of the scarred, and each member shows his or her self-made deformities: brands, cuts, piercings, tattoos.

In another (the box-cover art), the lovely Miyazaki, made up to be as pale-skinned as possible, is lying on a bed of bright red roses. As she rises up, her face changes and she becomes the face of Mitsuko, her daughter, still standing out against that red, red background.

There's also a few sequences that take place in what can only be the "strange circus" of the title, complete with brightly colored stage lights, grotesque emcee of questionable gender, a girl swinging on a moon that hangs from the ceiling — and a guillotine that one of the characters finds herself in before the film's end.

And of course, in a film that in many ways is built on a foundation of rape and incest, there's sex galore. Miyazaki, making her Japanese film comeback after an 11-year absence, is magnificent playing what amounts to four different roles, and on top of that, the 37-year-old is willing to take risks, repeatedly baring breasts and other flesh in a variety of sex and nude scenes that range from the sensual to the downright animalistic to the cringe-inducing.

The actresses playing the girls are very good — sometimes innocents and sometimes with more behind their eyes — the supporting cast is strong, but it's Miyazaki's show.

Hers, and Sono's.

And what an odd, fascinating show it can be.

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Video and Audio:

The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is soft but clear, and blacks are solid if not especially deep. The film features many bright colors, and sometimes there is digital noise to be seen, and a subtle grain is prevalent throughout. Nonetheless, while the image is far from reference quality, it is never a detriment.

The Japanese 5.1 surround is a good mix, with some nice use of the surrounds for atmosphere. This isn't a bombastic film, and it often relies on its music to envelop the viewer in its surreal world. Although dialogue can be a little shrill at times, the audio is a notch above the video and a legitimate asset to the film and disc.

The included English subtitles are removable.

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Special Features:

"Strange Days" is called a "making-of featurette," but it runs more than an hour — making it far more than the afterthought its description suggests. That gives it plenty of time for a look at both the film-making process — including a fairly frank look at Sono's sometimes-difficult directing style — and the motivation behind it, through a series of interviews with Sono, Miyazaki and other participants. It even offers a look at the intended meaning behind the film — or lack thereof, in some cases.

The red-band trailer for Strange Circus is also included, as are trailers for the "Danger After Dark" Collection, Next Door and The Wedding Party.

There's a photo gallery listed among the extras on the box, but it doesn't come up on the features menu.

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Movie: 2.5 Stars
Video: 2.5 Stars
Audio: 3 stars
Features: 4 Stars
Overall: 3 stars

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There are Japanese horror films with broad appeal, the kind that get remade as The Ring, The Grudge or Dark Water. Then there are Japanese horror films like Strange Circus, aesthetically brilliant and yet maddening in their chaos and confusion. They're not for everybody, but they have their fans. If you're one — and you'd know if you are — then give Strange Circus a try. It's worth looking at, literally.

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