Sion Sono’s latest follows a conflicted sex industry “scout” in a neon-lit morality tale dressed in shiny faux-Armani.

Picture © 2015 Shinjuku Swan Film Partners


Shinjuku Swan (2015)

Directed by Sion Sono
Starring Gō Ayano, Takayuki Yamada, Yūsuke Iseya and Erika Sawajiri Screenplay by Osamu Suzuki and Mataichirō Yamamoto
Based on the manga by Ken Wakui

Fledgling sex industry recruiter Tatsuhiko encounters love, violence and moral conflict in the heart of Tokyo’s Kabukicho red-light district.


“Gō Ayano brings pathos and a crazy energy to this hit adaptation of Ken Wakui’s popular manga.”

With five new features in release, it’s been a busy year for maverick director Sion Sono. So far TIFF has brought us the thoughtful arthouse sci-fi of The Whispering Star, and Toronto After Dark premiered the blood-soaked meta-horror of Tag and the delirious feel-good fantasy Love and Peace. In Japan, the director’s adaptation of Ken Wakui’s long-running and immensely popular manga series Shinjuku Swan was probably the most popular of his 2015 output, accomplishing the near-impossible by replacing Cinderella at the top of the Japanese box office.

We meet Tatsuhiko Shiratori (Gō Ayano of The Snow White Murder Case and The Light Shines Only There), desperate, penniless and wandering the garish streets of Tokyo’s notorious Kabukicho red-light neighbourhood. His indestructability in a furious street brawl catches the eye of Mako (Yūsuke Iseya), a sex industry street captain who takes Tatsuhiko under his wing and introduces him to talent agency Burst. The talents they seek are those necessary to satisfy customers in the countless hostess clubs, brothels and love hotels for which the district is famous. Under Mako’s tutelage, Tatsuhiko becomes a street scout: a master of the fine art of charming, cajoling and even begging the many young women who flock to the area to try their—ahem—hand at the game.

Initially emboldened by his success, Tatsuhiko soon finds himself both morally conflicted and in physical danger. Drugs, violence and exhaustion leave the girls he recruits numb, broken and in one case suicidal. The mean streets of Shinjuku are rife with predatory thrill-seekers, violent yakuza thugs and hostile scouting rivals, among them the Harlem gang—one whose star captain, the ruthless Hideyoshi (Takayuki Yamada), is linked to Tatsuhiko’s past.

So far, so good. We have the perfect set-up for what Sono does best: outlandish debauchery, hysterical violence, arterial blood sprays and the gleeful pushing of every button and boundary in reach—except this time he holds back. I never thought I would use the words “Sion Sono” and “restraint” in the same sentence but that is what we get here. Shinjuku Swan is Sono’s first film not working with a self-penned script and the entire production clearly skews toward mainstream accessibility. But even restrained Sono is pretty rich stuff: there are intense confrontations between sharply dressed pimps, beautiful women in deep trouble, and the queasy application of objects like bowling balls and water bottles as instruments of torture. Sono brings his signature energy to the proceedings but the film struggles to sustain momentum over the course of its prolonged runtime.

There is much to recommend in the film, though. Shinjuku Swan’s real strength lies in the commitment of the performers, particularly Ayano in the lead. His wild shock of blond hair gives him a vaguely clownish appearance but he infuses the role with a manic energy and charismatic vulnerability that demand your attention. He is almost matched in intensity by the glowering Yamada and the louche Iseya; the interplay between these three is the film’s main appeal.

Shinjuku Swan is perhaps not quite the outlandish fun it could have been but remains essential viewing for fans of Sono and manga-based pop cinema, and for audiences seeking the cheerful spectacle of Japanese men behaving very, very badly.

Shinjuku Swan’s Toronto premiere will kick off the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre’s 2016 film program on January 28.