English Title: Strange Circus
Original Title: Kimyo no Circus
Country of Origin: Japan
Director: Sion Sono
Producer(s): Koji Hoshino, Toshihiro Sato
Screenplay: Sion Sono
Cinematographer: Yuichiro Otsuka
Art Director: Hayato Oba
Editor: Junichi Ito
Runtime: 108 minutes
Genre: Mystery, Horror
Starring/Cast: Masumi Miyazaki, Issei Ishida, Rie Kuwana, Mai Takahashi
Wheelchair-bound erotic novelist Taeko is writing a book about the relationship between a husband and wife and their young daughter, involving incest, child abuse, violence and suicide. It might be based on the novelist’s own childhood, and her assistant Yuji is determined to uncover the truth about his employer, but his investigations uncover a world where it becomes difficult fantasy from reality.
After achieving acclaim for the memorable but flawed Suicide Club, Sion Sono returned with the even more bizarre Strange Circus. Dropping the over-the-top splatter of the earlier film Sono weaves a tale of twisted sexuality that might be equal parts fantasy, reality and hallucination. From the opening scene - an overweight drag queen introduces us to the ‘strange circus’ - nothing is entirely what it seems, and following the permutations of the plot becomes very tricky indeed.
The fusion of sex, horror and mystery in Strange Circus is characteristic of the ero-gro or ‘erotic-grotesque’ tradition, a concept most often associated with the works of acclaimed Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965). Although primarily a writer of detective fiction influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle (among others), Rampo also produced a number of works that are closer in tone and content to the horror genre, exploring the dark side of the human psyche, from lust and depravity to violence and murder. These stories have been the basis for many films over the years, and their influence can be clearly seen in several recent works, including Takashi Miike’s English-language debut, the made-for-TV Imprint (2006), the four-part anthology Rampo Noir (2005) and John Williams’ Starfish Hotel (2006). Strange Circus also carries a few direct references to the author’s work, such as the cello case in which a person can hide, a variation on the hollowed-out furniture used by one of Rampo’s characters for a similar purpose. Literature as a whole plays a key part in the film whether it’s the influence of Edogawa Rampo, Taeko’s torrid erotic novels or the opening quote from A Rebours, J Huysman’s fictional account of thrill-seeking Satanic cultists in 19th century Paris.
With its scenes of cruelty and abuse, Strange Circus is not an easy film to like, although like Suicide Club it’s almost impossible to forget. It is also an engrossing mystery that serves up enough bizarre twists (including one which rivals anything in Suicide Club) to make it genuinely difficult to switch off. Not a film for all tastes, but certainly a rewarding one for those who are brave enough to try.