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Calling gonzo Japanese auteur Shion Sono’s latest film, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2014), a sweetly sentimental film might seem a little nuts, especially if you’ve seen the movie. After all, isn’t this the same film that features a young girl “surfing” on an ocean of blood, Yakuza gang members as pick-up film crew, a finale that makes Kill Bill’s (2003) restaurant massacre look like a Hallmark special and a guerrilla film crew who call themselves “The Fuck Bombers” and delight in filming people throwing raw eggs at each other? All true, although none of these are really the film’s raison d’être: at its heart, WDYPIH? is about growing older, losing your dreams and the by-gone glory days of filmmaking (aka: the ones that actually used film). It might come wrapped in a stylish, candy-colored and ultra-gory wrapper but Sono’s goofy epic is, at heart, a friendly little shaggy mutt of a film: eager to please but rather unfocused, WDYPIH? is far from a masterpiece but I’m willing to wager that anyone who’s had their heart touched by the movie-making bug will find plenty to like here.

We begin 10 years in the past, as a pair of Yakuza gangs wage bloody warfare against each other: the Kitagawa and Muto clans seem evenly matched, as both gangs battle for control of the streets, but it’s a precarious balancing act and no one ever seems to be on top for long. The tide appears to turn when the Kitagawas send a team of assassins after the head of the Muto clan (Jun Kunimura) but Muto’s wife, Shizue (Tomochika), single-handedly kills the wannabe-killers, all while her young daughter, Mitsuko (Nanoka Hara) looks on in wide-eyed wonder. Shizue is sent to prison for her hand in the massacre (one would think some leniency would be in order, since it was basically Shizue defending herself against a group of attackers, although the point where she chased an injured guy into the street and butchered him might have thrown a monkey-wrench into the “self-defense” defense), Muto takes a mistress to “help him get through the hard times” and the Kitagawas reorganize themselves around Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi), the only survivor of the original attempt on Muto’s life.

At this same time, we meet The Fuck Bombers, a young trio of guerrilla filmmakers led by Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa), their far-beyond-driven director/de facto leader. The group recruits Bruce Lee-enthusiast Sasaki (Tak Sakaguchi) into their ranks, in order to shoot the action epics that they so dearly love. While out filming, the Bombers run straight into Ikegami, who’s fleeing the Muto house in a state of very bloody disrepair: he lets them shoot some footage of him, because he’s “cool” and then makes his escape. As fate would have it, however, this isn’t the last time this little group will cross paths…not by a long shot.

10 years later, Shizue is ready to be released from prison and her husband wants to give her the best present possible: a movie starring their beloved daughter, Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaidô). Unfortunately, the surly Mitsuko hates acting and has run away, throwing the whole production into jeopardy. Muto dispatches his gang to track her down and return her to him: at the same time, Ikegami prepares his gang to take another shot at the Muto empire and the Fuck Bombers are experiencing a bit of crisis. It seems that Sasaki is sick and tired of talking about making movies: Hirata keeps promising that they’ll make the “film of a lifetime” but it’s always “tomorrow,” never today. After ten years of “tomorrows,” Sasaki throws in the towel and quits, in disgust, leaving the FBs without their “action star.”

All of these disparate groups come crashing together when the FBs end up getting recruited (in a very roundabout way) by Muto in order to finish his vanity project. With Mitsuko back on board (no matter how unwillingly) and Hirata and the others eager to begin their “ultimate movie,” the stage is now set for some filmmaking magic. But what to film? As someone cannily notes, the Mutos and Kitagawas are preparing for one more, epic, bloody battle: why not turn the camera inward and capture the carnage as it happens? From this point on, the dividing line between fantasy and reality is shattered: as Hirata and the Fuck Bombers “stage” the battle, real blood sprays, real limbs are hacked and real Yakuza members are serving as the crew. It’s the ultimate “snuff” movie, as Hirata and his crew gleefully film the chaos swirling around them, always one step ahead of the gun (and the blade). Who will survive, what will be left of them but, most importantly: will they get the shot they need?

As should be rather clear from the above description, there’s an awful lot of stuffing crammed into this particular sausage-skin, even for a film that comes out a little over the two-hour mark. Despite all of the disparate elements (there are actually even more subplots and strands running through this than I mentioned, including a love story for Mitsuko and Ikegami’s obsession with returning the Kitagawas to the feudal days of Japan’s distant past), however, the film never feels particularly jumbled, probably because the Fuck Bombers storyline serves as the glue that holds everything else together.

Despite the fact that it all fits, however, WDYPIH? never feels as cohesive as it could be: the various threads tend to connect on a visual/stylistic level but don’t cohere as well on a thematic level. Even worse, however, WDYPIH? never quite feels like it completely cuts loose: despite the rather phenomenal level of bloodshed, especially in the climax, the film is actually so good-natured and goofy as to be relatively low-stakes. This is an especially strange complaint when one considers how many people die in this: if the numbers are in the double digits, they might as well be in the triple digits. By the conclusion, however, it seems that everyone is alive and well, ready to begin the next adventure as if everyone had been reset, ala Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. While this might have been some sort of commentary on the illusory aspect of film, it might also have stemmed from the desire to not “harsh our mellow,” so to speak. To be honest, I’m not really sure what the intention was: Sono sets up a pitch-black, nihilistic finale only to wrap it all up with a sunny, almost cartoonish bit and I was mildly confused, to say the least. Perhaps I missed something on the first go through but this particular quirk left me more than a little cold.

On a purely nuts-and-bolts level, WDYPIH? looks fantastic but the over-reliance on chintzy CGI effects, especially blood, really drags it all down a peg or two. When the effects work, such as in the blood surfing setpiece, it works fabulously. When the effects are poorly integrated and too obvious, ala much of the gore-drenched finale, it tended to pull me right out of the film. I can certainly understand the need to use CGI for many of the more outrageous effects (flying limbs, sword through the head, etc) but there are far too many points where an obviously CGI puddle of blood sticks out like a sore thumb. As someone who’s always been hot-and-cold on CGI effects, one of my all-time pet peeves is poorly done CGI blood: even ketchup would be more convincing, for Pete’s sake!

Ultimately, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? was a film that I really wanted to love but I could never quite clear the hurdles to get to that point. The film is never boring and when it’s good, it can be mind-rattlingly good: the blurring of real fighting and filmed choreography, in the climax, is pretty damn genius and there are plenty of genuinely funny cracks about independent filmmaking peppered throughout the script. Some of the fight sequences are also fairly jaw-dropping: the scene where Mitsuko spins around and decapitates an entire room full of assailants is exactly as cool as it sounds. Fumi Nikaidô is actually kind of great as the grown-up Mitsuko (the bit with her and the “broken glass kiss” is pretty amazing) and Tak Sakaguchi was a real hoot as Sasaki (he even kind of looked like Bruce Lee, at times, which was a neat trick) but too many of the other characters come and go without making much impact.

There’s definitely a lot to absorb here and I’ll admit to being a real sucker for the film’s discussion about the glory days of 35mm film: they’re preaching to the choir but I still appreciate the sentiment. At the end of the day, however, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, despite a fairly unique angle and some outrageous ideas, never really seems like it comes into its own: neither as shocking as it probably means to be nor as emotionally resonate, Sono’s film kind of sits in a neutral zone, cooling its heels while much better (and much worse) films wage war around it. The middle-ground is always the safest place to be, but it’s not always the most interesting. While Shion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a good enough film, I can’t help but wonder if it would have been more fun as a spectacular failure.