Of Sion Sono’s prolific filmography, his four-hour long ‘anti-rom-com’ Love Exposure (2011) gained the most acclaim; with an upskirt photographer as protagonist, Sono displays his taste for perversion. With an aptitude for erotica and gore, Sono’s worlds are incredibly perverse, and his 2015 splatter horror Tag is no exception. Within the first four minutes, protagonist Mitsuko (Reina Triendl) transforms into Final Girl (see my previous blog on the trope), the bodies of her classmates bisected by a gust of wind, their carcasses spewing blood at her. However, Tag’s perverted nature rests not just on its graphic mutilation of the female body. In its final portion, the film transforms into a self-reflexive critique of patriarchy.

Tag opens to a fantasy girl-only world: a school bus, filled with Japanese high schoolers, all donning uniforms and bubbly energy. In surrealist fashion, a pillow-fight breaks out, feather down floating in the air. Surrounded by her classmates’ infectious squeals, Mitsuko writes in a leather-bound notebook, warm light from the windows gently radiating down on her. A feather drops onto her page. Mitsuko lifts the white feather between her fingertips, her eyes perusing it with innocent curiosity. Sono foregrounds this bus scene with an establishing drone shot––its abstraction of the scenery suggesting impending doom, which is quickly realized with a gust of wind that slaughters all but Mitsuko.

Mitsuko is thrust into a world of never-ending gore. The air that once showered the feather-down turns hostile, carrying a violent flurry that butchers anyone (any woman) in its path. Running away from this nondescript evil, Mitsuko reaches a quiet lake. Its perimeter are decorated with her classmates’ body parts: their trunks float in the calm water, exposed chests bloodied and arms bent at impossible angles. Here, the existing horror can be characterized by what Philip Brophy names “the act of showing,” “the spectacle of the ruined body.” In Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of The Contemporary Horror Film, Isabel Pinedo describes the primacy of body horror in postmodern horror:

“Characteristically, everything […] is subordinated to ‘the demands of presenting the viewer with the uncompromised or privileged detail of human carnage,’ shown in an emotionally detached manner so that what fascinates is not primarily the suffering of the victim but her or his bodily ruination (Boss 15-16). The postmodern genre is intent on imaging the fragility of the body by transgressing its boundaries and revealing it inside out (21, emphasis added).”

Sono relentlessly displays the ruined (female) body, terrorizing Mitsuko and his audience.

Mitsuko’s world teeters between utter carnage and sentimental fluff. After her initial traumatization, she re-enters a seemingly familiar world: her classmates are alive, still full of youthful glee. The wind re-appears, but not yet in its murderous form––though it seems intent on exposing the girls’ underwear. In keeping with the film’s dream-like atmosphere, Mitsuko and her friends skip class and run to a nearby forest––retracing Mitsuko’s previous escape––where they muse on life’s surrealism. A gross expression of horror interrupts their reverie: a crocodile emerges from the nearby lake, mauling Mitsuko’s friend Taeko (Aki Hiroaka) and seizing her by the crotch. Though revealed to be an illusion, it’s this sort of repetitive rupture of violence (and sudden return to ‘normalcy’) that perpetuates the film’s horror. Mitsuko and both her iterations––she transforms twice, first into a bride named Keiko (Mariko Shinoda) and then into student-runner Izumi (Erina Mano)––are aided by her (continually reincarnated) friend Aki (Yuki Sakurai). But as the destined Final Girl, Mitsuko is alone.

Tag’s denouement reveals a twist: Mitsuko’s world, and all its horrors, are fantasy. When she exits her nightmare, she enters a male-only world. In “The Male World,” Mitsuko, Keiko and Izumi are all video game characters; their ordeals constructed to entertain men. An old man––so worn by age that he appears rather grotesque––explains to her that she is now in the future:

“You died a long time ago. It was in the spring of 2034. I got hold of a sample of your DNA. And your friends’ too…I bet you couldn’t have imagined that your DNA would be used for our entertainment. How’s that?”

He reveals a horrific display of objectification: Mitsuko and her friends’ bodies cloned and exhibited in a glass case, like taxidermy animals. A younger version of himself (Takumi Saitō) appears, promptly undresses, and beckons Mitsuko to join him; his older self does the same, iterating that it is her “destiny” to fulfill his desire––to sleep with him. Mitsuko finally erupts in protest, ripping apart one of the pillows. As feathers fill the room, she yells: “Don’t play with us like toys! Stop it! Stop playing with us!” Without hesitating, Mitsuko grabs the old man’s cane and commits seppuku, her wound spitting out a flurry of red feathers. Back in the bodies of her video game aliases, she commits suicide repeatedly, effectively removing each version of herself from the male-created fantasy.

The film culminates with another drone shot: Mitsuko lies in a vast white, her body a mere speck against the snowy landscape. The camera slowly descends on her, and she exclaims: “It’s over. It’s over now.” She stands up and runs, leaving a trail of footprints in the snow. The camera moves, trying to keep up with her, but she disappears from view. All there is to be seen is the snow’s blinding whiteness. The camera plunges into the ground, as if without Mitsuko, it can’t even support itself.

Sion Sono’s Tag is horrifically exploitative. For the majority of its hour and twenty minutes, an excess of mutilated female bodies fills the screen. But the exposed blueprint of patriarchy underlies the “flash-trash exploitation gorefest.” If, as Pinedo writes, “danger to the social order is endemic” to postmodern horror, then Tag exposes just how deeply ingrained fear of the woman is in patriarchal society. To maintain itself, patriarchy necessitates violent abuse of women. I suspect women that watch Tag identify with Mitsuko––the male-gaze fueled horrors are only exaggerated articulations of our lived reality. But do men need such extremes of violence to wake-up? What does that say about patriarchy––and about postmodern horror?

*Tag (dir. Sion Sono, 2015) is available to stream for free on YouTube.


Sources/Further Readings

Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations, no. 20, 1987, pp. 187–228. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2928507. Accessed 10 Oct. 2020.

Chen, Nick. “Your guide to controversial Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono.” DAZED. December 1, 2017.  https://www.dazeddigital.com/film-tv/article/38257/1/sion-sono-is-japans-most-transgressive-filmmaker

Pinedo, Isabel. “Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film.” Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 48, No. 1/2, 1996, pp. 17-31. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20688091. Accessed 24 Feb. 2021.