My review of Sion Sono’s “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” at Fantastic Fest 2013

On Sunday, September 22, 2013 I attended the highly-anticipated US Premiere of Why Don’t You Play in Hell? at Fantastic Fest 2013 in Austin, Texas. The sold out screening took place at the brand new Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline.

Let’s get this clear right from the start. Ignore the title. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Jigoku de naze warui) is not a traditional horror film in any sense of the word. Yes, limbs will fly and blood will spill by the closing credits, but this is not The Ring. The movie opens on a band of delinquents-cum-budding filmmakers, The F*** Bombers, wielding 8mm cameras as they come across a street gang fight – great visual fodder for a flick. But rather than simply document the event they attempt to orchestrate it for the lenses, as well.

Flash forward 10 years, and the kids are now 20-somethings, still with cameras in hand, still with dreams of big movies and big money. They just need that one break. When two warring yakuza clans begin to face each other down, opportunity knocks. Here is the chance to redo what they tried all those years ago, but with the maturity and wisdom of seasoned filmmakers (at least in their own minds).

Despite the premise, this is more than an action picture, more than an inspirational drama about a group of young artists striving to make it in an unforgiving world, and more than the horror-implied title. In fact, it fits into the comedy genre more than anything. But writer/director/composer Sion Sono’s latest work is, ultimately, a loving tribute to cinema.

Cinema Paradiso is one of my all-time favorite films. An aging projectionist takes a wide-eyed young boy under his wing and fosters his love of cinema. The kid leaves town to become a famous director, while the little theater in his childhood town shuts its doors. It’s a movie about passion for the moving picture and, despite its title, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is similarly a love letter to the power of 35mm film. In fact, you’ll see references to that 1988 Italian masterpiece along with Cool Hand Luke, legendary actors like Brando, and many others. Part of the fun is seeing how many homages you can catch. It’s one reason repeat viewings are in order. This is also a movie about moviemaking, with references to every aspect of the actual process as well as the classics themselves.

As important as cinematography is in any picture, in the case of Why Don’t You Play in Hell? it’s central to the narrative and the impact of the film on the viewer. Five-time Japanese Academy nominee Hideo Yamamoto has shot almost 60 features. Notable crossover titles include the original Ring 2 (1999) and the US remake of The Grudge.

Each of the two segments of the narrative, past and present, has its own unique look, sound, and production style. In the opening flashback sequences, as the kids are shooting 8mm, so does the movie itself reflect that in its use of natural light and grainy film stock. It’s shot with mostly handheld cameras to a 70s grindhouse soundtrack. The pacing is frenetic and haphazard, the editing fast and choppy, with abrupt transitions that transfix the viewer. The brilliant primary color palette is a feast for the eyes. This portion of the picture is packed with old school techniques – slow motion, freeze frame, and fast zooms.    

The present day story is characterized by high production values, with a slick look set to a string-based score. The color palette is warmer and less harsh, reflecting the capabilities of modern lenses, lighting, and film stock. But the action is still nonstop, fast paced, and unrelenting. Every possible photographic technique is showcased here, integrating the fast zooms, slow mo, and stop action utitlized in the earlier segments. It’s as if Sono is saying that what worked then can still work now. What the masters achieved with dollies and analog craftwork is no less relevant today. Audiences will always appreciate the power of the moving image and experience the same emotions regardless of the technology in use.

Jun'ichi Itô is Sion Sono’s go-to editor. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is their 12th collaboration. Their rich experience and team synergy is apparent from the start with an economical editing style that has no down time. The talented ensemble cast features Sono favorites and newcomers, with standout performances from Shinichi Tsutsumi, Hiroki Hasegawa, Gen Hoshino, Fumi Nikaido, and acclaimed action star Jun Kunimura (Kill Bill: Vols. 1 & 2). All clearly fell in love with the material and are completely reverent toward the director.        

Sono, 51, is a legendary Japanese filmmaker with close to 40 features to his credit. His 10 nominations and 19 wins on the festival circuit include the Horror Jury Prize for Best Film at Fantastic Fest 2007 with Exte: Hair Extensions. Other highly acclaimed titles include Suicide Club (2001), Noriko’s Dinner Table and Strange Circus (2005), Love Exposure (2008), Cold Fish (2010), Himizu and Guilty of Romance (2011), and The Land of Hope (2012). Why Don’t You Play in Hell? debuted at the Venice Film Festival just prior to arriving at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was one of the selections from this year’s Midnight Madness lineup of genre films and was the audience favorite, winning the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award. I missed it there and was thrilled to be able to catch it in Austin. 

The fact that the Japanese do horror well is something we accept without question. Just a quick glance at some of the many successful American remakes proves that -- The Ring (Ringu), The Grudge (Ju-On: The Grudge), Pulse (Kairo) – and there were six Japanese selections on my Fantastic Fest schedule this year. What many may not realize, however, is how craftily they combine terror and laughter. My two favorite “comedies” here this year were actually Japanese “horror” films. No, it’s not an oxymoron, and we aren’t talking Scary Movie-like farce. This is R-rated, terribly nasty stuff that many stomachs won’t be able to tolerate, especially at a length of over two hours. But if you can handle the blood and guts, you’ll laugh your lungs out. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? fits that description to a “T” (or two) for terrifyingly terrific.


NOTE: I selected Why Don’t You Play in Hell? for my Fantastic Fest 2013 Top Picks. It won the festival’s top Gutbuster Comedy Features Awards, winning Best Picture and Best Director. The movie has distribution in several territories. Films We Like has Canadian rights. It was acquired for US distribution by Drafthouse Films prior to its Venice debut. A 2014 release is planned.

The official trailer and a set of stills are below.

WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL Trailer | Festival 2013

A renegade film crew becomes embroiled with a yakuza clan feud in this wild, perverse and blood-soaked orgy of…
  • Video Release: July 30, 2013
  • Length: 0.60 min
  • Views: 7047


Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at

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  • Author: Larry Richman
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