'Himizu': love and madness in post-tsunami Japan
Love gasps for air in Japanese director Sion Sono's anguished portrait of a post-tsunami Japan in "Himizu," the hotly anticipated adaptation of a manga novel competing for Venice's Golden Lion.
Haunting images of devastation among the ruins of Ishinomaki in northern Japan after the March 11 disaster set the scene for a tale about the struggle for survival as moral and psychological limits are pushed to the extreme.
Among a group of forgotten homeless people is school-boy Sumida, played by Somentani Shota, who dreams of being "ordinary" but is abandoned by his mother, beaten and humiliated by his alcoholic father, and threatened by loan sharks.
Sumida's decline into murder and madness is played out on the dark city streets, where moral norms are inversed and deranged citizens attack victims at random while wailing that they no longer know who they are.
His only chance at redemption comes in the form of besotted classmate Chazawa, played by Nikaido Fumi, whose parents are as cruel as his, but whose boundless enthusiasm and love for Sumida pulls him back from the brink.
"Himizu" was supposed to be a straight adaptation of the manga comic book by the same name, but was largely re-written in the wake of the disaster, director Sono said in a poolside interview on Venice's Lido island.
"I had already written the script and was forced to change it. Whether to shoot footage of the area was something I struggled with because many there lost their lives and many have still not been found," said Sono.
"It was supposed to be a light romance. When I began to rewrite the script they begged me not to write an apocalyptic film but I couldn't stop," he said.
One of the film's most striking themes is the total breakdown of the family unit, as demonic parents violently beat their children and taunt them mercilessly, pleading with them to commit suicide and even preparing the noose.
"After March 11, Japan has to be considered unstable. I believe our days of normality have ended and we have entered where 'beyond the norm' appears to be never-ending," Sono said, adding: "Not all the victims of 3/11 are good people."
"When you go to Fukushima you find a lot of family relationships struggling, families forced to live apart because of the disaster. The families of the film exist in reality, especially among the lower classes," he added.
As the fabric of society disintegrates around them, the young protagonists are caught up in grotesque brawls verging on the comical, as they reveal almost superhuman abilities not only to survive but to fight back.
The idea of children rebelling was already in the manga novel, Sono said, but there were elements in the film's script which drew on his own experiences.
"Children are always in a situation where they have to fight against the world in order to make a path for themselves. Maybe it also draws on my life. My father was extremely strict, it was like a bad dream, a kind of trauma."
Like Sono, who "read grotesque poetry in junior high to wash those feelings away," Sumida ends up drawing hope from the words "I know nothing but myself," an extract from a Francois Villon poem given to him by Chazawa.
The director, whose previous films include "Suicide Club", "Bicycle Sighs" and "Cold Fish", said he thought his latest work would elicit a strong reaction in Japan, perhaps even denial.
"I think Japan is split into two groups: those who want to change and those who want to forget what happened, almost deny it. Some won't even talk about the radiation because they think it makes them look hysterical," he said.
Sono said his next project will be a feature film about a family in Fukushima, where the disaster triggered a meltdown in a nuclear power station, raising fears of a highly dangerous radioactive leak.
"My next film will deal with the issues in a lot more detail. I hope it sparks debate," he said.