Japanese auteur Sion Sono's adaptation of a popular novel revolves around young women becoming prey to gun-wielding teachers and a human-pig hybrid in a world without men.
Tag is Japanese maverick director Sion Sono's third release of a scheduled six-film slate for 2015, and it will probably end up the most intriguing and innovative of the lot. Alternating between scenes of visual splendor and relentless gore, Sono's latest film — which revolves around young women trying to flee from a murderous paranormal presence and psychotic humans — is by turns absurd and affecting, bloody and beautiful, carnal and cerebral.
It's not a mix made for the mainstream, and Tag's release in Japan on July 12 has failed to emulate the chart-topping success of Sono's star-fueled but structurally conventional pimp-and-prostitute drama Shinjuku Swan in early June. Just like the erstwhile enfant terrible's early work, the film will probably leave a more lasting mark away from home: its screenings at fantasy-genre festivals in Bucheon and Montreal should be the start of a run of bookings for midnight-screening sections in Asia or Asian-themed festivals.
Tag is certainly not matinee fare for the faint-hearted. Even for those who have seen Sono's previous notorious gore-fests like Strange Circus or the Kill Bill-aping Why Don't You Play in Hell?, the film's first part will still come as a visceral shock, as a mysterious wind arrives out of nowhere to abruptly (and literally) strike two coach loads of schoolgirls down on a country road. The only survivor of this calamity is Mitsuko (Austrian-Japanese actor Reina Triendl), who dodges the murderous airstream and flees to a town where, somehow, students she doesn't know acknowledge her as a longtime friend and classmate.
Mitsuko has barely eased into her new environment when her good times are shattered by yet another bloodbath. On the run again, her story morphs into that of Keiko (Mariko Shinoda), a 25-year-old woman readying for her wedding, where the happy smiles and well-wishing guests soon melt away as she is rushed down the aisle toward a potentially purgatory-like future. Fighting her way out of the mess, her flight then leads to a marathon in which the runner Izumi (Erina Mano) competes against villains and monsters bursting onto the scene from the previous chapter.
The one element underlining all three characters' existence is the unending need to run for survival. This premise is based on Yusuke Yamada's 2001 novel in which people sharing a similar surname are hunted down (or "tagged" as in the children's game) and killed. Adaptations have already appeared in droves during the past decade — including a whopping five-film franchise entitled The Chasing World — but Tag offers a major departure by relocating most of the story to a world solely populated by women.
While the other films tend toward conventional political allegories similar to The Purge, Tag's narrative could be interpreted as a story of gender-based social oppression as seen by a woman undergoing rituals of adolescence and adulthood. The violent interventions break up long scenes of solidarity in a world without men, the sense of optimism and freedom vividly captured by drone filming and cinematic post-rock numbers from the Japanese band Mono.
This reading of Sono's Tag as a feminist tract is given credence as the film enters its final act, when all is revealed about the true nature of the three protagonists' existence and how they could break out of this misogynistic vicious cycle. Mischievously, Sono has produced a satire aimed squarely at both fanboys and filmmakers of exploitative cinema, himself included.
Fresh from the misguided gangsta gung-ho of Tokyo Tribe or Shinjuku Swan, Tag offers hope that Sono remains the mad, bad boy he started out as, offering that curious mix of rage and romance that shaped the delicate psychological dramas of Suicide Club, Noriko's Dinner Table or Himizu.