Sion Sono has lived many lives behind the camera. After several relentless decades spent churning out softcore pornos, demented J-horror classics, furious confrontations with post-Fukushima Japan, a hyper-violent rap opera about masculine fragility, one of the most unflinching serial killer dramas since “Vengeance Is Mine,” a four-hour epic about upskirt photographers (and death cults), an Amazon miniseries called “Tokyo Vampire Hotel,” and a few dozen other films that defy such easy description, the only thing less surprising than the massive heart attack that struck Sono in February 2019 — and literally killed him for an entire minute — is that it hasn’t slowed him down whatsoever.
Forgive the familiar lede, but some things bear repeating, particularly in the context of a new movie that unfolds like a mission statement for its irrepressible creator. The poet emeritus of ero guro nansensu (literally, “erotic grotesque nonsense”) has been prolific as ever since rolling out of his hospital bed two years ago, with Sono’s recent credits including psychosexual bloodfeast “The Forest of Love,” a segment of the omnibus “State of Emergency,” and the post-nuclear Western “Prisoners of the Ghostland” starring Nicolas Cage. And yet, “Red Post on Escher Street” is the first of Sono’s not-so-posthumous films that seems to have been made in direct response to his near-death experience. Not coincidentally, it’s also the first of Sono’s recent films that’s fully engulfed by his signature lust for life.
An exhilarating postmodern comedy about people fighting for every moment of screen time they’re able to wrest from this stupid world before they have to leave it, “Red Post on Escher Street” is the best argument for Sono’s vital body of work since 2015’s “The Whispering Star,” and a perfect opportunity for newcomers to get their toes wet. While the riotous likes of “Love Exposure” and “Tokyo Tribe” have been fueled by the sheer exuberance of Sono’s cinema, “Red Post on Escher Street” is so much fun for how it celebrates that exuberance as an end unto itself — for how, to an even more self-reflexive degree than the great “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?,” it uses the filmmaking process itself as a lens through which to focus our attention on the pure force of will that Sono brings to everything he does and to all of the characters through which he does it.
The meta-textual element is evident from the very first shot (if not from the twistiness of the film’s namesake), as “Red Post on Escher Street” begins with an assistant director standing on a film set and slating for the camera. Behind her is a red mail post, a sign that says “Escher St.,” and a backlot that will soon be teeming with extras who walk this way and that. A wide variety of people cross into frame as we wait for the lead characters to reveal themselves: There’s a group of young women all dressed in white, a man carrying a banner that reads “Glorify me!,” some girls in colorful yukatas, a stepdad with a ponytail, and tons more. All of these people have names, and almost every single one of whom will come to play an important role by the time Sono’s film wends his way back to this moment for the big finale some 140 brisk minutes later.
The hectic way this story comes together disguises the simplicity of its premise: A hot young director named Kobayashi (baby-faced Tatsuhiro Yamaoka) is in pre-production on his latest movie, a reluctant studio gig with a half-finished screenplay that he only agreed to make in order to shake himself out of some grief, and on the condition that he could cast it full of amateur actresses. Audition notices for “Mask” are tacked around Tokyo, and “Red Post on Escher Street” — its looped timelines overlapping like Robert Altman dialogue — follows all of the women who excitedly heed the call for their shot at instant stardom. Well, maybe not all of them, but at least a pretty decent percentage. (Each scene is preceded by a title card listing the names of the characters who will be introduced in it, and you can almost hear Sono laughing at our inclination to keep score as the cast list swells into the dozens.)
Most of these roles are played by newcomers, themselves. There’s Eiko, who goes into hyper-competitive overdrive the moment someone hands her the casting notice. Natsume, Kurumi, Azuki, Hinao, and Fukumi, the tattooed members of an amateur acting troupe who support each other but all claim to be “the biggest, baddest bitch” (one of them might have an unfair in with Kobayashi’s assistant). There’s the Kobayashi True Love Club, a cult-like group of virginal stans who march to the audition in single-file while singing of their love for the director. And of course there’s also Kobayashi himself, and his producers, and the construction crew outside the casting offices who amusingly have to deal with all the weirdos coming in to audition, and maybe even a very opinionated ghost for good measure.
That’s not even the half of it. A small handful of these characters are elevated above the others because of their proximity to Kobayashi, but Sono isn’t compelled by any one of these people so much as he is by the web that forms between them, and by the friction that sparks from their conflicting desires as the movie floats from one body to the next like a virus that everyone would kill each other to catch. The freeform plotting and stream-of-consciousness energy speaks to Sono’s love of the French New Wave even more than most of his films do, and while his willingness to ditch certain storylines at the drop of a hat (or over-invest in others) might frustrate anyone expecting “Escher Street” to tie up every loose end with a cul-de-sac conclusion that’s more “Love, Actually” than “Love Exposure,” the abundant joy of this movie comes from letting your focus drift to the margins.
Here is a colossal ensemble comedy that recognizes how everyone is an extra in somebody else’s life, but also rages against the complacency that leads people to act like extras in their own lives. “Our only job is to pretend to do the roles we’ve been assigned,” one of the background players in “Mask” says to a scene partner. “Sounds like my entire life,” comes the reply. If there’s one thing that unifies Sono’s eel-like oeuvre, it’s that none of his favorite characters accept things how they are. On the contrary, they defy the status quo with an outspoken — often singing — fearlessness that might ring false if Sono himself doesn’t live it every single day. “Fight against your reality!” someone screams in “Escher Street,” and those words feel like they could be written on the director’s tombstone if he ever dies for good (even though they’re delivered here as a haymaker against the perceived stagnation of the Japanese film industry that Sono has long wanted to escape).
The casting call is such a perfect device for a Sono film because everyone who turns up at the audition is a willing extrovert who desperately wants to be there for one strange reason or another, even if most of them will go home empty-handed. And that vibe carries over to the backlot on which “Mask” will be shot, where we meet the self-proclaimed “King of Extras,” a child-like old man who’s appeared in almost every movie that’s been shot at that studio (and over-emoted in a way that makes him very hard to miss). “Extras are like onions on a hamburger,” he opines to the starry-eyed first-timers who come to his apartment to see video tapes of his career highlights. “No one pays attention to them, but without them things are very sad.”
That sidebar might be patronizing or out of place in the hands of a director whose blood doesn’t pump with the courage of his convictions, but “Red Post on Escher Street” is able to get away with such a giddy take on the saying “there are no small parts, only small actors” because the movie believes in that truth with every fiber of its being. Live boldly, Sono insists, and whatever you do, do it like no one has ever done it before. His films are always at their best when they take that maxim to heart — which is most of the time, but not always to this unhinged degree — and the last 20 minutes of this one are an orgiastic celebration of the chaos that might ensue on a big studio movie if everyone on camera started to seize the moment as their own.
It’s a mega-satisfying and weirdly sweet payoff for a movie that often seems like it can’t possibly find a way to tie itself back together, and the last scene answers the first in such an effective way that Sono might as well be standing outside your house with a megaphone and screaming at you to make the most of every shot you get. It might be hard to do anything with that message these days, but it comes through loud and clear all the same.
“Red Post on Escher Street” is available to rent as part of Japan Society’s series “21st Century Japan: Films from 2001—2020” until February 15, and is co-presented with Agency of Cultural Affairs and Grasshopper Film, which will release it on home video and VOD later this year. It can currently be watched as part of Grasshopper’s Movie Club.