Under normal circumstances, a river full of school girl corpses, ones that have been cut in half no less, shouldn’t be funny. But when this scenario is in the hands of manic madman Sion Sono, as it is in his latest wingnut opus, Tag, it certainly elicits a chuckle, even if it’s an uncomfortable one.
The mastermind behind the likes of Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Suicide Circle, and Tokyo Tribe, is back with a twisted, warped, wildly unhinged concoction of teen comedy, blood-spurting horror, surreal fantasy, and more. An adaptation of Yusuke Yamada’s novel, Riaru Onigokko, there are also touches of suspense thriller, magical realism, and science fiction thrown in, just for the hell of it.
With a mixture like this, it’s hard to picture what the finished product has in store for you ahead of time, and Sono doesn’t disappoint. Tag never goes in the expected direction. At every chance the story takes the least likely, most WTF turn—one that usually winds up with geysers of blood or copious numbers of young Japanese women ripped in half.
But for all the bonkers action, which includes crazed alligators, vengeance-fuelled high school teachers, and alternate realities, the narrative flow still somehow makes perfect sense. Watching Tag may hurl you around like a dinghy in a squall of madness, but for all the chaos—and there is so, so much chaos—there is also an internal, discernable logic and building arc.
The plot follows Mitsuko (Reina Triendl, Ju-On: The Beginning of the End), a student who, on her way to a class trip, is the only survivor as two bus loads of her classmates are bisected by an evil wind. And from there Tag gets strange, and in the most bizarre, delightful way.
Mitsuko’s life spirals out into mayhem as everyone around her meets gruesome, brutal fates, and as she becomes less and less certain who she is or about the true nature of the world. Is she traumatized, suffering from amnesia, losing her mind, or has shit actually come entirely off the rails? To Sono’s credit, he never lets on, planting clues along the way, bouncing from one astonishing situation to the next.
As inventive and vicious and hilarious as the gore can be—Tag exhibits a sharp, sadistic glee as Sono finds new and startling ways to antagonize Mitsuko—there’s more going on than simple havoc for havoc’s sake.
There are no men to be found for the first two-thirds of the movie, which is a conscious choice that takes a while to sink in. This underlines comments about the male gaze and the way women, especially these young girls, are objectified and sexualized in games and art. Amidst the madcap action, there is a level of creep as the audience gawks at these teens being hacked to pieces and otherwise killed and ravaged. Ideas of control and oppression are juxtaposed against dark, surreal bedlam. It may be a blast, but Tag has more than just that on its mind, and it never lets he viewer off the hook or be entirely comfortable, pointing the finger of complicity squarely at the fourth wall.
Tag can even be quite a lovely film to look at. Sono channels his inner Sam Raimi. There are stylistic flourishes lifted straight from Evil Dead, as the camera, from the perspective of an unseen threat, weaves through the woods in pursuit of its targets. Full of sweeping, soaring helicopter shots, there’s a scope and scale that the director uses to great effect, enhancing and visually expanding on the themes of watching and being watched.
Reina Triendl’s performance as Mitsuko humanizes all of this, grounds the chaos, and gives the story some heft and substance. Not the most fleshed out character—from the beginning, she’s different, she writes poems, which is movie shorthand for, “she’s weird”—she brings enough emotional weight to separate her from the bulk of her vapid classmates, and to keep viewers on the line and invested in what she endures. It’s not much, but in this scenario, it’s enough.
Tag is bananas and awesome and completely deranged. For the absurdity, surrealist bend, and sheer mayhem alone, I would be on board—fans will expect nothing less from Sion Sono. But for all the fun and chaos and over-the-top gore, there are intriguing thematic currents that make it more interesting than just another bloody romp. There are a few moments where the pace flags, but you’re never far from a mangled school girl or drastic shift in direction to pull you out of any period of stagnation.
It’s played a number of fests, and opened in Japan last summer, but Tag shows at the Seattle International Film Festival. It’s one to check out if you have the opportunity, a taste for total craziness, and want to get your mind broke. [Grade: B+]