Strange Circus (Kimyô na sâkasu) (2005)Reality is the mystery.
As is customary with Sion's work, he weaves in a reference to a historical/literary figure here; in other films he's introduced Franz Kafka, Francois Villon and – although more of a flippant reference than most – Gilles de Rais (in that film of his which is most at odds in many ways with his other work - Exte). In Strange Circus, he starts with a quote from prominent decadent-turned-penitent J. K. Huysmans. Considering that Huysmans took The Path From Decadence, it seems no accident that the reference to him is here, considering the events which follow in the plot.
We start by meeting Mitsuko, a young girl whose life goes luridly, disastrously wrong when she accidentally witnesses her parents having sex. And, again in common with other Sion films, sex is the key to a spiralling chain of disasters which befall a family. Her father, the boorish, sadistic Gozo, has it appears kept the worst of his excesses from his young daughter until this point, but once he's aware of what she's seen, he forces her to engage first as a voyeuse (hiding the terrified child in a cello case with a spyhole whilst he fucks her mother) and then as his sexual partner. Meanwhile, Mitsuko's mother Sayuri grows jealous, blaming Mitsuko for what is happening. Just as Gozo assaults his own child sexually, Sayuri begins to assault her physically and emotionally. Soon thereafter, a fight between Sayuri and Mitsuko results in Sayuri taking a serious fall, after which she dies of her injuries. Now Mitsuko and Gozo are alone, and Mitsuko's severe trials in life have only just begun...
If you think I have given you a major spoiler there, you'd be wrong. This is just one chapter of a story provided by one of several narrators, each of whom add to, take away from, or otherwise complicate what you might be forgiven for assuming was the main, straightforward character arc. No sooner are we acquainted with poor Mitsuko's plight than we're shifted somewhere else, meeting new characters altogether. Suddenly, we see it as part of a story being written by a novelist called Taeko; we are then left to figure out what, if any, relationship she has to the story she's writing. Is it, as the publishing company's adoring agent Yuji assumes, autobiographical, or perhaps at least semi-autobiographical? Taeko says not, affirming that it's simply a story – a story which could end in any way. Yet it seems that she has her secrets too... certainly, the "life unexamined" in this world would be a happier one.
This is an incredibly challenging piece of cinema, at times passing perilously close to coming apart at the seams. The unholy triumvirate of gruelling (although depictions of paedophilia are muted somewhat by the way in which they're alluded to, rather than screened, it's still tough going) complex (as it maintains several – possible – plot threads almost until its close) and depressing (Sion is a man who likes hammering human beings into the ground in fine detail) makes this a film that on one hand, I wouldn't like to revisit again, and on the other – I feel like I have to, to better appreciate it. And then again, for all its unseemly, fractious subject matter, it also sails close to black humour at points and in places which will make you wince at the fact that – well, you sorta want to laugh. It takes a bold director to go there. One seriously-misplaced change of tack could break the entire spell. Thankfully, in Strange Circus this doesn't occur. It's a comparison that I'm loath to make in many ways, but the languid camerawork, the symbolism, the surrealist touches and the lurid celebration of a culture's underbelly does put me in mind of David Lynch. Yep, it's become the kneejerk "weird!/Lynchian!" reflex, but here I think it does work rather well – even if Sion goes places even Herr Lynch would really rather not.
Guiding us through this maze of stories and possible truths are a superb cast, with special mention to Masumi Miyasaki for the balancing act of characters she's able to achieve. Issei Ishida as Yuji also succeeds in making his camp, almost delicate character move from quirky and devoted into something different altogether.
Strange Circus is a compelling version of a nightmarish Japan, unafraid to tear away at core ideas of family, selfhood and sanity to move towards its conclusion. I won't say it's an easy watch, but it's bold as hell.