Utsushimi (2000) is Sono Sion‘s ninth feature film. Before directing his first feature film Man’s Flower Road (Otoko no hanamichi) back in 1986, Sion was a writer and a poet. Only one year later he would gain worldwide popularity with his groundbreaking Suicide Club (Jisatsu sâkuru) which would be quoted by directors like Eli Roth. Utsushimi on the other hand seems to have inspired modern auteurs like Lars von Trier and Pedro Almodóvar.
It’s hard to summarize the plot of the film or point out which actor played which role, because everyone is credited with generic descriptions like Girl, Sexual pervert or Taxi drivers and there’s more than one for each of those. Utsushimi is what you’d define an art film, it’s very experimental and even avant-garde in places. The IMDb synopsis reads: “This documentary follows a butoh master, a fashion designer, and a filmmaker racing against time to create art and help a young girl in love.”
The film is about a young high school girl with a crush on a cook. She wants to lose her virginity to him, so she just walks into the restaurant and tells him to have sex with her. He thinks she’s crazy at first, but then she carries the heavy Hachikō bronze statue all the way to his restaurant. After that the man decides to sleep with her, even though he doesn’t love her. After having sex with her however he realizes that he’s in love with her and tries to do everything he can to be with her. Mostly running.
In this brief essay I will try to interpret the film as good as I can and explain some of the symbolism. First I will explain how Sion views body, then I’ll move on to his concept of words and lastly I’ll comment on the film from a filmmaking standpoint and in the context of Sion’s filmography. Of course to talk about the film in depth there will be a lot of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Utsushimi I recommend checking it out first. It’s on YouTube or at the end of this very article.
1. Real Body and Hollow Body (Also Love and Art)
Utsushimi is about body. What constitutes a body? Is it just physical? Is it just the flesh? For Sion the answer seems to be clear: The physical body is just an envelope, like clothes. This is what he calls the hollow body, the exterior if you will. The real body on the other hand is the hollow body plus something else. What is it? Is it the soul? It’s unclear if Sion would agree with that. It seems to be more about love. Without love the body is hollow. It is love that “fills” the body and makes it real.
The cook in the story falls in love with the schoolgirl after they “made love”. For him it is only about sex at first, but when he “gets to know” her or her body, he falls in love with her. This means that the hollow body is the vehicle through which one obtains the real body. It is her physical body that allowed him to obtain a real body, by falling in love with her. How does he prove his love however? How does one separate love from lust? Here’s where Hachikō, the dog, comes in.
Who is Hachikō? Hachikō is the cutest most loyal dog (Akita Inu breed) in the world. He really existed. Everyday Hachikō met his master, Professor Hidesaburō Ueno, at the Shibuya Station in Tokyo. What is remarkable is that even 9 years after Hidesaburō Ueno died, Hachikō still went to the train station to meet him. People noticed of course and he became some sort of a legend. Today you can still find a bronze statue of the beautiful dog. The spot where the two used to meet has now become one of the most famous meeting points for people.
Why all this doge nonsense? You might ask. Well, if love is many things it is also about loyalty. Hachikō proved his unconditional, true love and his loyalty to his master by showing up everyday, same place, same time, no matter the weather, no matter the temperature. In a way you could say that he proved his love through his physical presence, or in other words, through his body. The cook in the story ends up doing a similar thing. The schoolgirl likes to run, that’s what she does, but he on the other hand is slow and prefers to take a taxi.
To prove his love he pushes himself physically to become faster. He goes to the gym. He changes his body. He trains to become faster, so that he can run as fast as she does. By proving the he can keep up with her and physically transforming himself he makes his love visible and physical. In other words his body becomes the reflection and proof of his love for her. According to Sion the real body is contained in the hollow body, but it is only through love that it will emerge, like a stone that is dug out of the earth.
Similarly Sion comments on art. His actors read the lines in the film. In a way they play themselves. Sono Sion himself makes the briefest of cameos. It is the viewer’s body that translates the images and perceives them as art, but if the art isn’t there before isn’t the (viewer’s) body itself art? It’s also interesting how Sion’s family appears in a brief scene at the beginning. Like all of us Sion’s body is the result of his mother and father. His family is where he comes from and where he gets his body, but they are not his body.
In this way it’s clear that what we are as humans is a composition of body, love and art. The body is at the beginning of everything. It is art and it can produce art, but only through love. The way to get love is through body and the expression of love is art. It all sounds like wordplay, but that’s just because the three are all connected, they influence each other and are impossible to separate. Let’s see however how words come into play.
2. Words, Meaning and Reality
In the Bible God creates the world through His word. It could be said that words are reality. Certainly they are the most powerful thing or tool that exists. Sono Sion is not a Christian, but as one can see from his movies and as he himself declared in numerous interviews he is fascinated by the Scriptures. For Sion words are the thing, as he will go on to explain in more detail eleven years later in Guilty of Romance (Koi no tsumi).
In Utsushimi the schoolgirl likes running. Her running is real. When she says “I like running”, she is running. When we see the actors (as they are rehearsing their own scenes on a meta level) the words they speak become reality. Actions have consequences, but so do words. Words are nothing however without meaning. What does one need to give words a meaning? Well, I’m sure you’ve guessed it: Body, of course.
It is only when words become physical (like God’s word in the Genesis) that we can see them and if we can see them they are real. For the cook words mean nothing. He has an empty body. He is nothing without love (yes, that is a 1 Corinthians 13 reference). He tells her that he loves her, but it is useless, because his words are empty. There’s no evidence that he loves her. However when he starts running he begins to add meaning to his words.
Eventually she realizes that his words do mean something, because he’s physically transformed to be with her. Where does art come in? Utsushimi clearly shows that when the actors of the film are simply reading the script it isn’t art yet. When they give meaning to their words however, through their body and their performance that’s when they the film comes to life. Of course to give meaning to their character they have to love it, give themselves completely to it and lose themselves in it.
3. Sono Sion’s Filmmaking: The Auteur’s Origins
On surface level Utsushimi is a poorly shot and edited film, with almost no style, lots of shaky cam and an almost pure Dogme 95 aesthetic. It is however unclear how much of that is intentional, to make all the points Sion is trying to make and how much of that is due to a low budget. If one can look past the amateurish look, which I personally kind of enjoy because it adds rawness and grittiness, there’s a beautiful film with a deep meaning underneath it all.
A film like Utsushimi is especially interesting for those who are already accustomed with the director’s previous work. In this picture you can see a lot of the director’s stylistic flourishes which he went on to perfect in his later work (namely Love Exposure). There is already a characteristic use of music, both classical and not. In this film however there seems to be too much music. Even two songs playing on top of each other at one point. Again it’s difficult to determine how much of it was on purpose, but it’s also worth noting that he has excellent taste.
Another things that is immediately noticeable is the general romantic tone of the film. Sion’s stories are always surprisingly romantic, for a guy who likes to play around with blood and violence so much, but I guess that it’s his poetic side. Utsushimi is a very poetic film, both in the shot composition and in the way it’s told with all the title cards and unusual edits. A lot of romanticism surely comes from his typically Japanese characters, who are always fascinating to watch. Usually they are despicable people, but he always manages to turn them into heroes.
A lot of the film’s charm comes from them, as well as a lot of the humor. Utsushimi is a very funny film. There’s all kinds of humor: Gross-out humor, situational humor, silent film style humor and slapstick humor. There’s possibly more humor than in any other of his films, but it all works brilliantly. Often times the comedy is also very physical, of course this being a film about body, and the actors are requested to perform some rather crazy stunts, some of which I’m sure hurt a lot more than we’re able to see on film.
While I’m sure there’s a lot more to Sono Sion’s Utsushimi I hope to have mentioned the most important themes and ideas he was trying to convey. Of course not having the chance to interview Mr. Sion a lot of it is just my own interpretation, but being very familiar with his work I hope that I am not far off. In this essay we’ve seen how Sion discusses body, love and art, but also how words always have a very specific meaning. The film also lends itself to the discussion of Sion as an auteur and an entertaining piece of filmmaking in its own right.