Last time we met Sion Sono it was for a street style rap musical about gang warfare. Before that we've mostly been admiring him for his epic and irreverent tale of panty shot perverts and bizarre religion Love Exposure, bloody serial killer true crime thriller Cold Fish or poetic exploration of a woman looking for love in all the wrong places in Guilty of Romance, not to mention a tale of teenage rage and post-earthquake anxiety in Himizu or state of the nation address in Land of Hope. Recently prolific and varied enough to give even Takashi Miike a run for his money, it should come as no surprise that Sono's latest effort is, essentially, a family film about a man's love for his pet turtle.
Ryoichi Suzuki is a mild mannered office worker with dreams of becoming a rock star. Belittled by his colleagues, Ryoichi has no friends - that is until he falls hard for a tiny turtle sold by a strange man on a rooftop. Hatching plans together for Ryoichi's rise to superstardom the pair become inseparable. However, after another round of humiliation at work Ryoichi flushes “Pikadon" down the toilet! Full of remorse, Ryoichi pines for his lost friend - meanwhile, Pikadon arrives at the lair of a mysterious sewer dweller who rescues broken and discarded creatures. When Pikadon is given a "wish" pill by mistake, Ryoichi's life soon begins to change!
In case it needs saying, Love & Peace is in no way a "serious" film - much as that may sound like a pejorative comment, all that means is that it's delightfully absurd and heaps of fun, and where it harks back to some of Sono's key concerns it does so in a light-hearted, even mocking manner. The plot maybe conventional in a lot of ways - down trodden loser suddenly makes something of himself with magical help but ends up becoming arrogant and forgetting his true self before being redeemed by a massive fall from grace - but as usual Sono has managed to bring something new to even this comparatively tired tale.
Largely, that’s thanks to his bizarre side story of the land of misfit toys being cared for by a mysterious yet kindly old man who lives in a tiny alcove in one of Tokyo’s sewer complexes. Cheerfully harking back to some of those classic 80s kids movies, the strange collection of broken robots, damaged cat toys and lovelorn dolls do their best to tug at the heart strings with their stories of loss and abandonment while the mysterious old man keeps them going with tales of hope and magic pills which grant the power of speech or wishes.
However, as Ryoichi’s dreams grow bigger so does Pikadon himself, and its not long before the cute little turtle’s devotion to his master becomes a dangerous threat to the entire city. Ryoichi chose the name “pikadon” seemingly at random and without realising that it’s become a byword for the atomic bomb. Thus Ryoichi’s eventual ballad of love and regret for his lost turtle buddy is misunderstood as a lament for modern Japan and a pledge to “never forget” the wartime nuclear attacks. Of course, this “subversive political rock song” becomes a giant hit, catapulting Ryoichi on the road to superstardom. However there is more heartbreak for Pikadon to come, as he’s continually betrayed by the ever more ambitious Ryoichi who’s only too quick to sell out his beloved friend to get ahead with cruel and potentially tragic consequences.
Of course, the one thing that needs to be mentioned is the amazing music in the film, including the title song which is tailor-made for waving a lighter in the air and is sure to become your latest ear worm. Ryoichi only writes a few songs but Sono also manages to throw in a musical self-reference to a previous film that makes for a fun Easter Egg for his avid fans to find, while the rest of the soundtrack is equally catchy too.
In short, Love & Peace is the Christmas themed punk rock kids' movie you never knew you needed. Yes, it goes to some very dark places - the least of which is the accidental destruction of the city of Tokyo by the now colossal kaiju incarnation of Pikadon whose only wish is to make his best friend’s rockstar dreams come true, but it does so with heart. In true family film fashion, it addresses the themes of true friendship, the importance of being true to yourself and that the love of man and turtle can be a beautiful, if terrifying, thing. Strange, surreal and totally mad, Love & Peace is the ideal Christmas gift for all the family and Sono’s most enjoyably bizarre effort yet.
Love & Peace was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2015 and will be released in the UK by Third Window Films at a later date.