Sion Sono originally wrote the script to Why Don’t You Play in Hell? back in the late ‘90s, but it may have ended up being a boon that the film was not made until now. The story deals heavily in nostalgia and broken dreams, and being able to tie that in with the fall of celluloid and the rise of digital filmmaking gives the movie a powerful thematic spine. But while the characters may be stuck in the past, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? certainly isn’t — it’s plainly shot on digital, gleefully stuffed with low-fi CGI effects. It comes both to mourn and bury the old ways.
The film’s events are far too convoluted to relate in brief. One could summarize the premise as “the Yakuza recruits a team of wannabe filmmakers to document their assault on a rival gang,” but that happens so late in the story that it can’t quite be said to be “about” that. Really, the film bounces its characters around, setting things up so all of them are smashed together in the end, their various longings all crashing down spectacularly. And it is spectacular. The aforementioned assault is a half-hour ballroom dance of severed limbs and firehose sprays of blood. One moment may well set the cinematic record for most decapitations performed with a single sword stroke. It makes Kill Bill’s “Crazy 88” scene look demure in comparison.
But again, there’s an hour and a half of movie before that, during which we get to know the disparate players. The wannabe filmmakers are the “Fuck Bombers,” a team of wide-eyed enthusiasts led by Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa) who are still amateurs after a decade of renegade shooting on 16mm cameras. They still meet in a closed-down movie theater, still shoot on film, and still believe they’re on the cusp of “making it” despite all evidence to the contrary.
Meanwhile, Yakuza boss Muto (Jun Kunimura) clings to the time when his daughter Michiko (Fumi Nikaido) starred in a popular toothpaste commercial, whose insidiously catchy jingle will be trapped in every viewer’s brain by film’s end. He wants to finish a movie starring Michiko in time for his wife’s impending release from prison, but Michiko is severely uncooperative. Muto’s rival gang boss Ikegami (Shinichi Tsutsumi) has his gang live in the style of old samurai as his ideal of maintaining manhood. Eventually, all these plot threads collide when Muto decides to film his attack on Ikegami as a way both to take out his enemies and complete the movie. And with the prospect of shooting with an unlimited budget on 35mm film dangling before them, how could the Fuck Bombers resist?
Even before the massive bloodbath setpiece, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? pulsates with manic energy. The way the movie’s editing works in concert with the actors’ mugging results in astonishing comedic rhythms. Multiple scenes are an endless parade of sight gags choreographed at a breakneck pace. The heightened, bellowing acting style fits into this perfectly. The emotions are big enough to keep up with the tone. In this cartoonish world, the characters aren’t cartoons — they’re often achingly sympathetic.
The film certainly sympathizes with them, at least, though it is also under no illusions about what holding on to what’s past will do to a person. Whether that means that all of these people deserve to kill each other extravagantly, or whether that can be read as going down in a blaze of glory (or, perhaps, both) is up for debate. What’s not in question is that the road to that blaze is a rollicking good time.