If you need any further evidence that Sion Sono is a film-maker quite out of the ordinary, consider the fact that in 2015 - the year Tag was originally released in Japan - it was only one of *seven* works directed by Sono. With a prolific level of activity to rival even that of fellow enfant terrible Takashi Miike, Sono has made a name for himself as one of the most subversive voices working in the industry today, renowned for the infamously bloody Suicide Club (2001) and the four-hour-long epic Love Exposure (2008) - one of modern Japanese cinema’s indisputable masterpieces.
Tag sees Sono treating us to the mother of all opening gambits, as we see a coach and its load of perky Japanese schoolgirls suddenly, without warning, literally sliced in two - the torsos flopping lifelessly onto the road as the meaty remains of their lower halves pump out copious fountains of blood. Playing its best hand first, Tag certainly isn’t shy about going all in on the gore from the off - and in a world seemingly populated only by females - this coachload of unfortunate souls are only the first of many equally gruesome deaths...
We see the world (quite literally at times) through the eyes of the coach’s only survivor - Mitsuko - played with a captivating, doe-like innocence by Vienna-born actress Reina Triendl. A girl of few words, Sono’s camera work places us in her increasingly tortured headspace as she is forced to watch countless numbers of her schoolmates die again and again in a series of horrific incidents that gives the Final Destination series a run for its money.
To reveal more of the plot would be to spoil the film’s numerous jaw-dropping reveals, but suffice to say, what begins as a by-the-numbers grindhouse work soon transforms into something far more profound and thematically deep. Introducing elements of alternate realities and time travel, it’s like you’ve suddenly stumbled into a secret X-Rated episode of Doctor Who you never knew you actually really wanted. Shock horror gives way to a ceaseless, unnerving sense of dread - all pushed on by a propulsive alt-rock soundtrack and some beautifully swooping shots that take us through Alice In Wonderland-like landscapes of surprising natural beauty. Sono’s films often have this elegiac, lyrical flow to them, and it surfaces again throughout Tag; a cresting wave that ceasely builds and builds, yet never breaks. A master of deft pacing, Sono pulls out all the stops here to ensure Tag feels suffused with this kind of breathless energy - indeed, it’s telling that a key scene later in the film actually sees our characters swept up in a twisted spin on a sports day marathon.
If this makes Tag seem like an oppressively dark work - it is. And yet, as with so many of Sono’s previous works, this elegiac atmosphere is tempered with a trademark silliness that, to be honest, is somewhat inherent in a film that plasters its characters with as much fake blood as Tag does. And that’s not even mentioning the countless panty flashes that make a recurrence from one of Sono’s other 2015 efforts - the wacky high-school comedy The Virgin Psychics. With its almost-entirely female cast, some have labelled Tag a pro-feminist work, and while the film is certainly open to that interpretation, it is not without the caveat that the movie undoubtedly glories in having its cast spend a good proportion of its runtime dressed in incredibly short school skirts or, later on, simply underwear.
But for all this, there *is* real substance to be found in Tag, and while it never scales to the heights of Love Exposure, its short runtime only adds to its relentless, heart-pumping intensity. Tag will grip you from the very first gush of blood to the very last. Some might call Sono’s filmmaking facile and exploitative, but one thing is without question - it is never, ever boring.