Vampires have been a mainstay in Western pop culture since Bram Stoker's 1897 best-selling novel Dracula, and a cornerstone of movie lore since the likes of Count Orlok crept onto our screens in 1922's Nosferatu. Thanks to franchises like Underworld, Blade and more recently, the success of the Twilight series from 2008–2012 (regardless of where your opinions stand), these blood-sucking beings have become sought after once again. Since then, we've seen some beautiful artistic projects such as Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.
As it often does with Western phenomena, Japan has decided to create its own version, and who better to sink their teeth into the genre than Japan's wackiest filmmaker, Sion Sono. Coming back at us full swing once again is Sono's recent Japanese release of Tokyo Vampire Hotel, though this time trading the big screen for the streaming screen through Amazon Instant video in only his third stab at television.
WARNING: This article contains some spoilers for Sion Sono's Hate Trilogy.
The series follows a #vampire clan who hole up in an impregnable hotel with trapped humans as a food source, while civilization collapses outside its doors. A terrified young woman named Manami (Ami Tomite) ends up inside the hotel, though she finds a defender in the mysterious K (the singularly named Kaho) and her cohorts, vampires from a rival clan.
Sion Sono is one of the most consistently compelling filmmakers working in the industry today. He has won fans all over the world for his blend of controversial themes, dark humor and often cartoon-like violence, along with insightful commentary on today's society and our views. Among his flicks are Suicide Club (2001), Love Exposure (2008) and Cold Fish (2010).
Theda Bara And The Vamp
In the early days of Hollywood, before the term "femme fatale" was coined, a "vamp" was the term used for women who were just as seductive as they were deadly. More accurately, it referred to "(what is now known as) a femme fatale who causes the moral loss of those she seduced, and about how a vampire fascinates then exhausts its victims." The earliest example of this is Theda Bara in 1915's A Fool There Was, whose character was referred to as "The Vamp," which is from where the term was derived.
Often cited as the first "vampire" movie, though it doesn't actually feature any, this silent film is one of the few surviving films starring the actress, having retired in 1926 and never appearing in a "talkie." A Fool There Was was also responsible for making Theda Bara one of Hollywood's earliest sex symbols thanks, in part, to her elaborate fictional portrayal: She was made up to be an exotic Arabian actress, and the studio presented her in a flamboyant fur outfit (really, she was just Theodosia Goodman from Ohio). Later revealed as a hoax, this may have been one of Hollywood's first publicity stunts.
The Hate Trilogy
While it would appear fairly likely that Tokyo Vampire Hotel will feature at least one "vamp," Sono's latest looks like it'll go for a more darkly comedic and over-the-top approach in line with most of his other works. While the auteur has never before gotten his hands on the vampire genre, he is no stranger to the vamp type of character. In particular, focusing on Sion Sono's self-titled Hate trilogy.
The Hate trilogy is made up of Love Exposure (2008), Cold Fish (2010) and Guilty of Romance (2011). It explores Sono's and our views on love and, appropriately, on hate. He explores the links between the two and how factors such as religion, perversion and sin can influence our feelings.
Aya Koike (Love Exposure, 2008)
Aya Koike uses doses of seduction for her own gain through manipulating the emotional weakness of her victims, and that emotional weakness is ultimately something of her causing. She is head and recruiter of the Zero Church, a cult religion that brainwashes people into mindless followers. She sets her sights on Yu Honda and his family, inserting herself into their lives through a terrifyingly and very intricately manipulated plan to get close to — and ultimately destroy — them. Koike is one of the most frighteningly evil villains in filmic history.
Aiko Murata (Cold Fish, 2010)
Almost like a sort of Japanese Harley Quinn, Aiko is something deadly wrapped in a sweet and bubbly package. Wife and partner-in-crime to serial-killer, tropical fish store owner Yukio Murata, Aiko remains completely calm as lifeless bodies drop to the ground around her, and completely unnerved as she dismembers and disposes of them (Cold Fish is particularly gory). Practically nothing is given in terms of a backstory, but Aiko craves love and attention (or at least some warped version of it) and knows exactly how to get it.
Mitsuko Ozawa (Guilty Of Romance, 2011)
Mitsuko is a literary professor who moonlights as a prostitute. The physical transformation she undergoes is drastic but it is her mental state that comes to the surface during late hours that earns Mitsuko the vamp title. She, perhaps, isn’t so much a “femme fatale” in the general sense; however, she does make use of her sexual prowess and causes the emotional breakdowns of several people around her. Her actual motives are somewhat unclear, but we do know that through her warped philosophies of love and sex that she is an emotionally broken woman. Her difficult home life is highlighted by a gloriously uncomfortable scene between her and her (perhaps even more terrifying) mother, where Sono's dark humor masks rather ill intentions.
It'll be interesting to see how these themes present themselves in Tokyo Vampire Hotel. The religious foundations of Love Exposure, the murder and nihilistic influence of Cold Fish, along with the warped sexual philosophies of Guilty of Romance all sound like they belong in the vampire genre, and have appropriately been present throughout history. Sono's Hate trilogy (and his works in general) presents worlds that are dark, confusing and bursting with mystery and intrigue, filled with characters who are seeking the meanings and truths in their lives.
Whether it's horror, comedy or a mix of both, Sono isn't afraid to venture into territories that other filmmakers wouldn't dare. His films tackle the subjects that we are afraid to speak about, and they do so with such ease and intricacy, commenting on our world and provoking our thoughts and demanding our discussion. While I have no doubt that Tokyo Vampire Hotel will be full of laughs, flashy, over-the-top violence, and lots of fun, you can also count on plenty of subtext for viewers to think about.
Hopefully, it won't be too long before Tokyo Vampire Hotel is available on Amazon Instant Video outside of Japan. I cannot wait to check myself in and absorb the madness that only Sion Sono can create.
Who are some of your favorite movie vamps? Let us know!