Sion Sono's Tag (2015) is a gore-filled, insane mind-bending trip through fan service, the male gaze, and the queer identity. Gabe talks about subverting horror tropes to make a statement and yuri love. Kat talks about oppression of LGBTQIA+ folx in Japan.
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Tag (2015) Director/Writer: Sion Sono/ Yusuke Yamada
Summary by IMDB: A girl's life cascades into chaos as everyone around her suffers a gruesome fate while she becomes less certain of who she is and her once-once normal.
Tag: A Fan Service-Heavy, Incredibly Violent Feminist Film?
by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Tag is an incredibly gratuitous film. Whether regarding the gore and violence towards women or the oversexualization and fan-service shots. Sono goes above and beyond to make the viewer uncomfortable. We chose Tag after seeing the opening scene online which gives Final Destination a run for its money. It features a bus full of young schoolgirls having fun and ridiculously enough, having a pillow fight on board. The quiet and studious protagonist drops her pen (she writes poems) and crawls onto the floor to retrieve it. During this, a mysterious force rips through the bus, resulting in each and every one of the girls and women aboard to be graphically sliced in half. The film then follows our heroine, Mitsuko, as she stumbles her way into bizarre and surreal experiences that have you asking, “What is going on?” almost constantly. The film never takes itself seriously and yet, always does. Fan service is immediate and so exaggerated, the characters laughing off the wind blowing up their skirts to reveal pink underwear, or the silly recurring spontaneous pillow fights, that you have to realize the joke is its very existence. For anyone who doesn’t understand what fan service is, it is material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series which is intentionally added to please the audience, often sexual in nature, such as nudity. Our friends at Beyond the Bot have some interesting videos about fan service in anime.
Sono sets out to overindulge in some of horror’s and japanese media’s favorite film techniques - gore, mutilation of female bodies, and the oversexualization of female bodies. I have always been a fan of gore and quite enjoy some of the more absurd films. Eli Roth was one of my favorite directors for some time. Though, recently I watched just a clip of Hostel and was sick. Why did any of us watch that? I digress. The gore in this film, like the fan service, is rather comical in how ABSURD it is. Including a scene in which teachers start shooting the teen girls with militaristic machine guns (which would be rather traumatic and triggering for american teens). The direction taken with the gore and violence is, honestly, comical. Whereas horror films that abuse female bodies to be edgy and serious, looking at you Last House on the Left, this film leans more towards Evil Dead in the gushing of blood and absurd scenarios. It even borrows the sneaking camera technique from Evil Dead to reflect the incoming evil wind that slices young girls in half.
While I absolutely understand and can clearly see the intent in the film's third act, which reveals the thesis statement in such a way that leaves little need for guessing, I still wonder at what point we consider it less a critique and instead, just another film contributing to the problem? I think of Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion film, a direct rebuke and commentary about the fans who thought they were owed a specific ending. How he used the oversexualization and incredibly uncomfortable scenes with women (cough - Misato kissing Shinji cough) as a way to reflect the disgusting expectations and desires of the anime fanbase. Sono is certainly doing this. Kat is going to disagree with me on this but I think this can be seen as a feminist film. I totally understand the critiques as we felt it strongly in Invisible Man in that we question what validity the film can have when made by men. But we’ve seen what happens when a film, made by women, can still be catered to the male gaze and flop, Jennifer’s Body. I think Sono’s thoughts are obvious and intentional. In an article on Cinapse titled, Fantasia Fest 2015: Sion Sono Plays a Riotous Game of TAG. With Schoolgirls. Things Get Weird. By James Carey. There is discussion of the lack of men being represented and when they are in the film, they are seen in a disgustingly negative light. Sono is not kind to men in this film.
Heading an almost exclusively female cast, Reina Trendl delivers a great central performance as the perpetually pursued Mitsuko, scared out of her wits as her world crumbles around her, yet strong enough to keep surviving against psychotic authority figures, a scary wind, and… pfft… men. Whilst deliberately few and far between in the cast list, men don’t come out of this tale particularly well, invariably portrayed either as sexual deviants, deranged control freaks, or, quite literally, pigs.
And it’s true that these girls are powerful as much as they are victimized by the fan service wind. They embrace their sexuality, use language unfit for a young, respectable woman, and eventually kick ass. My reason for choosing this film, for this series, was because it was so often tagged (get it) as feminist. With the character Sur (because she’s surreal), we get to question our reality and find the power to push back. She tells our heroine that the only way to break free from fate is by an act of surprising daring. Carey goes on to say in their article,
Suffice to say, things are not what they seem, and accusations of misogyny are quashed as the refreshingly weird and unpredictable narrative flirts with big, philosophical ideas as much as it revels in the violent deaths of adolescent schoolgirls.
*Now entering spoiler town*
In act two, we transition from girls-running and being traumatized to women straight up murdering other women. This act changes the flow and expectations of the film, keeping the audience confused and curious. Mitsuko is now a woman named Keiko who is about to get married. (Her groom is revealed to be a man with a pig head, not very subtle). She is stressed, as usual, as she is ushered into the chapel and forced to get ready to marry a man (which, mind you, we haven’t seen a SINGLE one this entire film). She finds comfort in seeing her best friend Aki (whom I was hoping she was going to marry, I’ll speak more on the queer ideas later). Aki explains she knows more than she previously let on in our last scenario and instructs Mitsuko/Keiko to MURDER ALL THE WOMEN. And then she shows her how, by just breaking these people in half. What follows is equally absurd action scenes of Keiko and Aki tag teaming and breaking/butchering/murdering women in the chapel.
In act three, Mitsuko becomes Izumi, a star track runner who is encouraged by her friends to push herself forward. She runs from the would-be assassins of now-matrixy teachers from the beginning and the pig-headed groom. During this act, we are told that the women are caught in an eternal murder-loop because Mitsuko won’t die. Later, our beloved Aki tells her she has to kill her in order to escape. Which leads us to the Man’s World, a gloomy and icky world where men have been watching, and enjoying in their disgusting men way, the violence and fan service of the film so far. This part has the same energy as Hideaki Anno showing clips of a live audience watching Evangelion along with their hateful graffiti and letters. Sono is not subtle in telling us men are trash and the media is often for the male gaze.
Now, I want to also discuss some of the queer overtones of the film. I feel that Sono had some intention in making Mitsuko queer. She is clearly seen as different and gets quite bashful around her female classmates. The biggest indicator is her very clear love and affection towards best friend Aki who in an emotional, sweet, and not subtle scene tells Mitsuko how much she cares for her. She says, “Nobody is as important to me as you.” and my heart. As a queer woman myself, I was eleated by this development and immediately filed them into my ships box. In an article that I really appreciated on Rai’s Anime Blog titled, Violent Japanese Horror Movie Tag is a Strange, Surreal Yuri Metaphor, Rai goes on to explain their personal feelings towards the representation of the queer identitiy explored through Mitsuko. Brief sidebar here to explain what Yuri means: It is a genre of Japanese media focusing on intimate relationships between female characters. While lesbianism is a commonly associated theme, the genre is also inclusive of works depicting emotional and spiritual relationships between women that are not necessarily romantic or sexual in nature.
Rai explains some of the more impactfully queer moments in the film. The part mentioned that stuck with me, because I was honestly struggling to find the meaning in women fighting other women so graphically and what the power was there. Rai explains,
The next part one of the strangest yet most significant scenes in the whole movie. Mitsuko/Keiko starts walking down the aisle. The room is filled with women cheering for her. Again, only women. There is no a single man in sight. At first, the women seem happy, but then they begin to insult Mitsuko/Keiko and start pushing her around. Next, something even stranger happens. The women begin to take off their clothes. In their underwear and bras, the women begin to hit Mitsuko/Keiko. It may seem like strange fan service on the surface, but I think it has a deep, metaphorical meaning. The women are taunting her. She likes women, she likes the female body- and yet she can never have that kind of relationship. Society won’t let her.
I’ll admit, I’m fuzzy on why Mitsuko’s death means. Rai offers that her killing of Aki to enter Man’s World is a representation of her killing her feelings towards Aki to conform. But why would Aki ask her to do that when she’s been so supportive til now? Why would those running women push her forward if she is supposed to kill that love? In the end, Mitsuko stabs herself in order to avoid sleeping with a man, honestly same girl, which results in all the other versions of herself stabbing themselves or dying. This breaks the cycle of the girl’s being murdered for entertainment. But at what cost? It makes me question whether this film would fall into the Bury Your Gays trope in film. Is her spontaneous act that the men thought she valued her life more than her love when she didn’t and proved that by dying for love instead? Who really wins here? Or is that the overall message, that no one does in films that profit from the violence and suppression of women?
Maintaining Harmony & Peace: The Queer Experience in Japan Schools
by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
So from my research it seems like this film resonated with a lot of different people, and I read a lot of very impassioned articles about how they felt this film represented survival from trauma, from witnessing violence against other women and the exploitation that is put on women by the patriarchy. Or that film is a story about women surviving after facing intense trauma that kills their hearts, but that they still walk around in their bodies unrecognizable to themselves. I read another article that spoke on how the film was a strong metaphor for being a queer woman in Japan, and how the pressure to conform in Japan to patriarchal norms is it’s own form of horror. I was really torn with how I felt about this film, in that there was A LOT of violence, and A LOT of overt sexualization of young girls, and metaphor or not, it was a stressful watch. It felt very trauma porn for me though, and it was a lot. For me it was hard to figure out exactly what was happening because of all the gore and violence, and because as a woman it was really hard to watch other women being torn apart and exploited rather voyeuristically on screen. I can definitely see how it could represent a lot of the things the articles touched on. I think throughout Gabe and I both caught on to the relationship of Aki and Mitsuko and the queer elements at play. I definitely got the not so subtle metaphor that women are exploited in life, and in the media for the benefits of men.
I also recognize I watched this film with a very western lens, and I’m not native to Japan, so I am not an expert on what life is like for LGBTQIA folx or women/femme presenting folx in Japan. Also I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the negative way western society has influenced the world in pushing patriarchal Judeo-Christian ideals onto other cultures, and that there is historical evidence of Japan not being as conservative in reference to sex, women, and lgbtqia folx prior to western colonialism. So I’ve done some research but the internet only provides so much perspective to complex issues such as this, so if anyone has had a different experience and wants to tell us about it feel free to reach out to the ghouls at firstname.lastname@example.org
I read an article titled “The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered Down” LGBT Bullying and Exclusion in Japanese Schools, from Human Rights Watch in 2016, and although the article is a little dated at this point, it does touch on some personal experiences from LGBT+ youth in Japan. Also from a quick google search it seems that there are still, issues in Japan regarding rights and respect for LGBTQIA+ individuals to this day.
The article goes on to say “Japanese LGBT children who attempt to report bullying and harassment to school officials play their luck, as the response depends entirely on an individual teacher or school staffer’s personal perspectives on sexual orientation and gender identity. There is no comprehensive training for school staff, and the guidelines that do exist are non-binding suggestions issued in April 2016, which predicate respect and accommodation for gender identity on the diagnosis of a mental disorder.
Based on interviews with more than 50 LGBT students and former students in fourteen prefectures throughout Japan—as well as teachers, officials, and academic experts—this report documents bullying, harassment, and discrimination in Japanese schools based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, and the poor record of schools when it comes to appropriately responding to and preventing such incidents.”
The article goes on to highlight personal stories from Japanese youth who have either faced bullying and discrimination from their peers, and also their teachers. In many quotes throughout the article, the maintaining of “harmony” and “peace” seems to outweigh the needs of unrepresented students exploring their identities. Some students are even told they are arrogant, or selfish in exploring their sexual or gender identities, and that doing so hurts the people around them. The dangers associated with this are obvious in that many individuals don’t have the information they need to figure out their identity safely, and don’t have individuals that they feel safe around. The lack of positive representation for LGBT+ folx in media as well contributes to the alienation of these individuals, and contributes to ignorance among their peers. In reading about these experiences, the suggestion that Tag could be about the queer experience in Japan makes a little more sense for me, as well as the necessity to destroy all sense of normalcy with over the top violence. It made me think of the one friend that kept insisting that doing something unexpected and bold is the only way to free yourself from the simulation or timeline.
I also did some research in reference to sexism in Japan, and things that women may face in Japan. In an article titled Why Japan Can’t Shake sexism?, by Mariko Oi, written in April 2021 for BBC, Mariko outlines some issues in Japan when it comes to gender equality.
The article came out days following when former Tokyo Olympics boss Yoshiro Mori made global headlines for sexist comments saying “Women talked to much”. Momoko Noji, 23 created a petition against him that collected over 100,000 signatures. The result was Mori resigning, attempted to fill his seat with basically another 83 year old man, and then finally, Seiko Hashimoto, a younger woman and former Olympics minister being placed instead. While some viewed this as a victory, Noji, the creator of the petition said it was not enough, and that “Companies criticised Mr Mori’s comments, but some of them have less than 1% female board members, and that needs to change,” she says.
Risa Kamio, an elected member of the Setagaya City Council in Tokyo agreed with Noji saying in such a great quote, “To me, Mr Mori was only the tip of the iceberg. It was like a whack-a-mole game. People criticised him because he came out to be whacked, but there are many other moles."
Ultimately like everything else, resolving the issues that are in play would require a lot of people who actively benefit from the system to stand up against it and intentionally face their uncomfortable feelings. Making meaningful change will require the whacking of a lot of moles, and removing those who allowed the moles to run things for as long as they have.