Before he was a prolific and widely celebrated filmmaker, Sion Sono was a member of the avant-garde, public street performance art group Tokyo Gagaga, where he protested against all forms of authoritarian control. This rebellious spirit never completely left Sono when he began making films, and throughout his career he has experienced his fair share of artistic struggles against the conventions of the Japanese mainstream film industry. Although the majority of his films have been passion projects that fully displayed his singular voice as an artist, Sono has had to fight against producers who tried to streamline his vision. Sono explores this eternal conflict between art and commerce in his film “Red Post on Escher Street,” resulting in one of his most personal and emotionally raw films.
With its kaleidoscopic and wide-ranging portrait of a vast array of characters involved in the making of a film, “Red Post on Escher Street” recalls the ensemble films of Robert Altman, but filtered through Sono’s exuberant and wild worldview. As the film begins, Sono introduces his eclectic cast of characters who are auditioning for the lead roles in a new film by the fictional film director Tadashi Kobayashi (Tatsuhiro Yamaoka). Kobayashi opens the casting call for his film to amateur performers, and Sono delves into the backstory of each of the aspiring actors who attend the audition. Things get complicated in “Red Post on Escher Street” after Kobayashi finally chooses the lead actresses for his film in the form of Yasuko Yabuki and Kiroko, but his producer forces him to replace them with popular and physically attractive, but less talented actresses.
It is interesting to note that the actors themselves in “Red Post on Escher Street” are also non-professional thespians participating in an acting workshop. Sono shot the entirety of the film in only eight days as a training exercise for his actors, and he is able to elicit naturalistic performances from them. In fact, some of the performances are more authentic and heartfelt than the work of more established professional actors.
It is this turning point in the film that reveals the ultimate theme of “Red Post on Escher Street” – the desire for artistic freedom in a world dominated by conformity to mainstream edicts. The last act of the film, as Kobayashi begins to unravel while he struggles to film his project with his unwanted leads, contains some of Sono’s most breathtakingly liberating cinema. The film set itself becomes a microcosm of the wider society at large, as Kobayashi is forced by those above him to focus on the bland actresses in front of him, while he is more interested in the less outwardly appealing, but unique extras at the margins of his camera’s frame. While the film shoot descends into frenzied chaos, it is within this anarchic environment that Kobayashi is able to finally unleash his long-repressed yearning for complete and total liberation as an artist.
“Red Post on Escher Street” culminates with the protagonist running away from authoritarian control and towards what he perceives to be a symbol of his freedom. “Love Exposure,” “Himizu,” and “Why Don’t You Play In Hell?” all culminated in a similar scene of the lead rapidly sprinting away from authority and towards an unknown future, but “Red Post on Escher Street” is Sono’s first film which shows the protagonist actually running back to that which he was escaping from, and finally asserting his control over his oppressors. Perhaps after all these years of struggling to maintain control over his art, Sono has finally regained the passion which he has longed for throughout his career with the making of “Red Post on Escher Street.”
Indeed, Sono films “Red Post on Escher Street” with an almost newfound sense of freedom, as each frame feels as loose and energetic as some of Sono’s earlier, equally liberating films like “Love Exposure,” “Strange Circus,” and “Guilty of Romance.” Unlike those films, however, “Red Post on Escher Street” is almost completely devoid of any sense of nihilism and despair. Instead, for the first time Sono imbues his work with a comforting mood of ebullience. There is still a hint of darkness with the troubling incest theme of Yasuko’s story, and the suggestion that she may be homicidal, but overall “Red Post on Escher Street” is a surprisingly optimistic story about celebrating the power of those at the margins of society.
While the literal meaning of the film’s title refers to an actual red mailbox located at Escher Street where the actresses mail off their audition applications, Sono is also alluding to the graphic artist M.C. Escher with the constantly intertwining narrative of “Red Post on Escher Street.” Like Escher’s portraits of asymmetrical objects that are continuously merging and receding from each other, Sono intricately interweaves his multiple narratives by going backwards and forwards in time, and replaying certain scenes to view them from alternate perspectives. This is a method which Sono has employed before, most notably in “Love Exposure,” and it is a way for Sono to further deconstruct and find ways to break apart traditional narrative structure in innovative ways. It’s always refreshing when an artist such as Sono is able to find his voice again after struggling for years with more mainstream projects, and “Red Post on Escher Street” is one of Sono’s most artistically accomplished and exhilarating works in years.
- Film Review: Red Post on Escher Street