If nothing else, Sion Sono possesses an admirable work ethic. Depending on how one counts such things (and despite the often sprawling length of his films), he's averaged at least one major theatrical release per year since catching the attention of international cinephiles and horror nerds with 2001's Suicide Club. That's on top of an ambitious schedule of television shows, short films and little-seen mystery projects. Even so, 2015 was a banner year. Over a twelve-month period, the director cranked out five full-length features in a bewildering variety of genres and styles, finally rivaling the mad profligacy of Takashi Miike, Sono's countryman and peer in overcranked eccentricity.
Tag, the first of these films semi-available to Western viewers, is an ambitious if modestly budgeted exercise in surrealist dream-horror. Sono's film takes inspiration and its Japanese title, "Riaru Onigokko" ("Real Tag"), from a popular science fiction thriller by teen-lit superstar Yusuke Yamada. Given that the novel in question recently spawned not only a successful screen adaptation but an entire, ongoing film franchise, it might seem strange that a celebrated art-house iconoclast would so soon choose to pay it another visit. In scripting his own version, however, Sono deviates significantly from Yamada's text, twisting the straightforward tale of a young man hunted by mysterious forces into a fragmentary, gore-soaked and frequently comical deconstruction of female identity in contemporary media and society.
The story concerns a teenager named Mitsuko (Reina Triendl) and her attempts to navigate the inconstant landscape of what I hesitate to call her reality. We're given little opportunity to know Mitsuko, as Tag provides us no access to her past or inner life. Instead she's a blank and rather sleepy slate, and we drop into her ordinary schoolgirl's day in stereotypical media res. When the relative calm of a brief opening idyll explodes in grisly mayhem, we understand no more than Mitsuko herself, and from there we tumble with her, bouncing repeatedly from confusion to carnage and back again. Nothing we encounter coheres for more than a moment or two, not even Mitsuko's paper-thin sense of self.
As our hapless heroine's trip down the razor-lined rabbit hole progresses, even her name and face become subject to revision. Though Triendl's Mitsuko remains central, three actresses eventually step in and out of the lead role. Mariko Shinoda plays the character as bride- to-be "Keiko", while Erina Mano appears as a determined young athlete named "Izumi", each quite strong and distinct in her portrayal. It's worth noting here that much of Tag's runtime is populated exclusively by women. This lends a distinctly political edge to the film's constant threat of apocalyptic violence, especially when combined with the polymorphous protagonist's adaptive blankness. For those who might need a bit more prompting, a hilariously bizarre third-act reversal makes Sono's intentions crystal clear.
I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for bugged-out existential thrillers in which the fundamental nature of reality is called into question, so I found Tag's shifting, looping, self-sabotaging storyline quite intriguing. Better yet, Sono corrals his penchant for long-winded digression this time out, confining himself to a careening, 85-minute sprint. This allows the film's disruptions and mysteries to retain their charge from beginning to end, despite the fact that "making sense" isn't high on the agenda. Many will doubtless feel cheated by the elliptical resolution, but as far as I'm concerned, the thrill of the ride more than justifies the price of admission.