The first thing you should know about Sono Sion’s characteristically unhinged “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” is that — spoiler alert? — most of it takes place inside of a vampire’s vagina. Well, technically speaking, most of it takes place inside of a massive hotel, but that massive hotel is actually squeezed into an inter-dimensional pocket of space-time that’s located between the legs of a decrepit vampire queen. And that decrepit vampire queen lives in Tokyo, hence the title “Tokyo Vampire Hotel.” Or maybe lives in Romania. It’s kind of unclear. The hotel is definitely in her vagina, though — there’s no doubt about that.
A demented cocaine giallo that splits the difference between Suzuki Seijun and Claire Denis (that is, between “Tokyo Drifter” and “Trouble Every Day”), Sono Sion’s latest exercise in gonzo digital mayhem is maybe the wildest thing he’s ever made; that’s high praise when discussing the punk auteur responsible for the likes of “Love Exposure” (a four-hour epic about a teenage Catholic who falls in with a secret cult of up-skirt panty photographers) and “Tokyo Tribe” (a hyper-violent rap opera about a gangster who torches an entire city to the ground to compensate for his micro-penis).
Sexed up to the gills, awash in national anxieties, and absolutely drowning in CGI blood, “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” might also be the most frantic and incoherent thing Sono has ever made, at least in the feature-length cut that’s currently making the festival rounds.
First commissioned as a nine-episode, 388-minute miniseries, “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” premiered on Amazon Prime in Japan last July (it has since been made available to the company’s American customers, a fact the company has buried like a government secret). Now, Sono’s freewheeling opus has been sheared down to a frenzied 142-minute version that may or may not have been edited under its director’s supervision, and the results are electric and maddening in equal measure: electric, because it’s always fun to watch Sono’s feral imagination at work; maddening, because this truncated edition is something of a sucker bet. It’s long enough to convince you that it needed to be several hours longer, but too long — and exhausting — to make you want to check out the miniseries for yourself.
Naturally paced like an old house on fire, “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” goes from zero to “WTF!?” faster than just about any film before it. This thing isn’t a minute old before an evil Kabuki empress starts ritualistically shoving a woman into her genital abyss, human screams (and human arms) reaching out from the demon’s fleshy maw. Cut to: A novella’s worth of title cards that tell us of an ancient war between two rival breeds of vampires: The Draculas (who co-existed with humans) and the Corvins (who locked the Draculas underground and preyed on morals for sport). A prophecy foretells that some magic Japanese millennials will be endowed with he power to defeat the Corvins and free the Draculas, the final blood war set to erupt in post-Olympic Tokyo circa 2021.
And so we meet Manami (“Antiporno” star Tomite Ami), a guileless 21-year-old girl who’s basically the Bella Swan of the upcoming battle royale. Introduced via a vintage Sono setpiece, during which a smiling cartoon sociopath dressed in pink fur guns down an entire izakaya, Manami is in for a long night full of terrors. Scariest among them might be a stone-faced killer named K (“Our Little Sister” actress Kaho, as rich and magnetic in this cartoon orgy as she was in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s gentle family drama). Loyal to the Draculas and loaded with a backstory that demanded a whole episode of the miniseries, K is the only character whose purpose remains clear enough to push through this pureed mush of a plot.
And while Manami is ostensibly the lead, it’s K who drives the minimal story once the characters gather in the titular hotel for the apocalyptic “coupling party” that’s being thrown by the craziest surviving Corvins. The details are difficult to parse, but it seems as though they plan on locking 100 hot Japanese singles inside a cavernous soundstage, nuking the rest of the Earth, and forcing the survivors to have sex with each other in order to continue the vampires’ food supply. Somehow, it all ends up making a lot less sense than it sounds.
The why of it all has mostly been lost in the ensuing orgy of kinetic fight scenes, soapy flashbacks, and Cronenbergian body horror — but bits and pieces of logic are still lying in the rubble. While the cast is a bit too big to fit everyone into this theatrical cut, some characters still cling to their arcs. Chief among them is a striking Corvin lieutenant called Yamada (Mitsushima Shinnosuke).
A dreadlocked gangster who rocks a pink zoot suit and pines for notorious 16th century murderess Elizabeth Báthory (Sono’s wife, Kagurazaka Megumi), Yamada appears to be acting out of spite for his father, the Prime Minister of Japan. Unlike many of the other people we meet, his grievances almost add up. While Sono’s allegiance is clearly with the country’s young and frustrated, satire has no chance of surviving this trimmed down version of “Tokyo Vampire Hotel,” and the idea of a shit-eating politician swearing to “break his bones for a bright future” feels like a punchline without a joke.
More intact: the hyper-political filmmaker’s latent anxieties about a Japan struggling to negotiate between its past and future. “We’ve hit a dead end,” the Prime Minister insists, alluding to any number of the country’s modern crises. The story’s preoccupation with mortality speaks to pressing concerns over Japan’s dwindling population, while the isolated setting reflects on a nation that might have grown too self-sufficient for its own good. Much is made about the hotel’s inaccessibility; how the heroes rely on a subterranean network of salt mines in order to travel between continents and dimensions, while the villains wall themselves up inside the confines of Sono’s incredible, windowless hotel sets.
You may not want to check out. Even in this broken husk of an epic, Sono’s maximalist visceral pleasures are enough to result in a pleasant stay. Making the most of a fairly sizable budget, the writer-director creates a non-stop clusterfuck of primary colors, baroque architecture, and chintzy digital violence.
Snatches of Ennio Morricone’s “Days of Heaven” score collide with cheese-metal guitar riffs as though they’re harmonizing in a way that only Sono can hear. However frustrating it can be, the narrative confusion enhances the film’s natural bedlam, resulting in a delirious experience that explodes with the pent-up energy of someone who wants to forge their own future. And that’s the thing about Sono’s films, even the ones that have been ruthlessly cut down to size: There’s no reason for them to “make sense” when they’re capable of such vivid chaos.
The theatrical cut of “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” played at the 2018 Fantasia Festival. The full 9-episode miniseries is now streaming on Amazon Prime.