Sion Sono’s Guilty of Romance is the third chapter in what the director dubbed his ‘Hate' trilogy. Loosely inspired by the true story of a businesswoman, who worked on the side as a prostitute and was found murdered, Sono's noir-style, Black Dahlia backdrop is actually a filmic context for what turns out to be a far less generic premise, one that is focused on two female characters exploring how they choose to use their bodies under a set of intellectual principles developed by one of them. Through this, Sono is able to explore the role of women in Japanese society and how two of them set off to free themselves of subservient positions.
Guilty of Romance could easily have been open to the charge of misogyny, given that Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) and Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi) spend their nights fucking men for money and sometimes get slapped around for being a bit bolshie. Sono, to his credit, has managed to avoid such a pitfall, mostly because he's not being judgemental.
Mitsuko is a university lecturer, an intellectual, an upper-class gal and a bit of a complicated soul. There is a fatalistic air, regarding Mitsuko, while Izi is guided more by romantic notions of fulfilment. Both ladies are guilty of romanticises their ideals and freedoms. Romance, here, is not the everyday box of chocolates, flowers and tickets to the theatre variety. Izi, the young housewife of a celebrated author, goes from meek and mild to raging nymphomaniac. However, her new found friend isn’t perhaps as altruistic as she seems and could be leading Izi into the very dangerous underbelly of night-time Tokyo.
The murder mystery subplot, and a quite mad denouement, aren’t as gripping as the central story. Sex in the film feels Ballardian; a way for characters to express their inner selves free of the confines of everyday, conservative social mores. Yet it is through this road to personal and sexual freedom that the girls come a cropper. Izimuri lives a dull life as nothing more than a servant to her philandering husband. Her venturing into modelling, pornography and prostitution, at first, offers an exciting new lease of life and is portrayed as almost endearing, given how much pleasure Izi derives from it. The newness is intoxicating.
Sono’s film also dares to be funny and Megumi Kagurazaka is utterly superb as Izimuri. It’s a performance asking for complete commitment to the character. And she gives it wholeheartedly. The art direction and neon visuals, too, are among the film’s aesthetic joys. It is worth pointing out, here, that when the film was released in the UK it was cut by twenty minutes. Does this explain the muddiness of some plot turns and the female detective character being under-cooked?
The world reflects the journey undertaken by Izi. We move from clean, modern interiors to gaudy, neon-noir hotels and shadowy apartments interrupted by bursts of strong light. Guilty of Romance is a search for an allusive freedom and presents the idea that women can be empowered and get away with it. The film is romantic and lyrical as much as it brutal.