I said two reviews ago that one of my favourite parts of this binge is stumbling upon films that catch me off guard and surprise me. Last night I went to see Sion Sono’s Tag in theatres as part of a small festival playing nearby (I actually missed the chance to watch another Sono movie immediately after Tag, which is too bad). I’d read a fairly positive review of Tag by Mr. Evan Sathoff, but I really only remembered one actual fact about the film when I went in to see it, which is probably the way to go. Consequently I’m going to try to skirt around spoilers for this one, as best I can.
The film opens with a bunch of cheery Japanese schoolgirls on a bus. They’re laughing and chatting and having a pillow fight. The pillow fight comes out of nowhere (but there’s actually a retroactive explanation, it’s not completely randomness for the sake of it). As feathers are flying in slow motion, one girl bends over to pick up a pen off the bus floor. At this point the bus is sliced in half. Everyone who is seated on the bus, everyone but our pen-fetching protagonist, is cleft in twain. Their torsos are scattered across the road as the bus slows to a stop, mangled lower body halves still in it, spraying blood as it rolls. The girl starts running from the danger, and a series of people get sliced in half along her way. Eventually she runs to a river. She’s a screaming mess as she wipes the blood off herself and changes into a dead girl’s school uniform. At which point she walks back to a school. No one here is dead, and she can’t recognize any of them. However they recognize her and start chatting.
What follows is a series of scenes that might feel like vignettes, especially since the lead actress gets swapped out a few times, but is actually a narrative that feels more like a Grant Morrison comic than the goofy horror I was anticipating. It is a movie I absolutely could not predict. Early on I had two thoughts – I know roughly where this narrative is going to go, and jesus this is a little Japanese for me. Instead of the ending I expected and wanted happening on a textual level, the film builds to a meta point about the explosive tropes of Japanese cinema.
That’s just the shallowest interpretation, not any of the actual plot, which is so insane it’s worth discovering for yourself. The presented plot is so bonkers, it’s really delightful. However I was also kind of thrown off by the very final ending, I kept expecting the film to meet my initial prediction. My initial prediction was founded on the idea that this was primarily a film about self-discovery, and right up until the very end I was expecting one specific final act expressing the culmination of the character’s self-discovery. I had a reveal about the character pegged, and I’m still not sure it’s wrong.
If it is, then a combination of jokes and symbolism meant to convey general discomfort with growing up perfectly made a third option available for interpretation. There’s a lot going on in this film, with its combination of surreal imagery, violent deaths, meta tomfoolery, and wacky reveal. There’s a whole lot to chew over and interpret. Like I said, Grant Morrison, and specifically stuff like Flex Mentallo, is probably the nearest thing to this movie in tone and content. Which is an exciting turn of events, because I love Grant Morrison, and I love Flex Mentallo.
I did briefly debate not writing this movie up however. Truthfully it’s not really a horror film at all. It’s emotional, and gory, and Sion Sono is well known for his horror, but Tag is not really a horror film. Just like Flex Mentallo isn’t really a superhero comic. Instead they’re twisty surreal commentaries on the genres they’re conjoined with. But there is gore, and I didn’t have time to watch another movie, and I damn well wanted to write about Tag. So here we are. You can get off this crazy ride anytime you think I invalidate the central premise.
Tag was a blast to see in a full (large) theatre. Hearing the crowd react to the unexpected bursts of gore and respond to the jokes and craziness went a long way towards elevating the experience. Which is good, because seeing it in an empty theatre wouldn’t have been much fun. It’s not that the movie doesn’t benefit at least in some way from the large format, but it’s hardly shot for Imax. There were a few moments when the image quality in Tag looked a little worse for wear. It’s not really the kind of image quality that merits the size of screen I saw it on. The crowd was loads of fun though, so that’s all good.
The effects were generally alright too. Some more alright than others. Japanese filmmakers really do love their shite CGI, and this film is no different. However there are moments where the gore is delightfully manual, and other moments where the glossy computer gore is at least mercifully brief or shaky, which keeps the mass of splatter fun. Which is what you want when there are popping heads, animal maulings, backflipping monsters, and gunplay.
It’s also an effectively brief movie. It hits hard and fast and ends while the goings good, clocking in at under an hour and a half. In some ways this is the only way to go. I would be surprised if this film had managed to sustain many more minutes without feeling repetitive and tiresome. Although saying that maybe the batshit reveal could’ve benefitted from a minute or two. Or maybe not, it communicates everything it needs to as is. This is an incredibly entertaining flurry of gore and goofiness and philosophizing. Go see it and dissect which of the many options is the best way for a Japanese teen to be murdered, and the psychologically charged symbolism behind it.