Film Review: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

Film Review: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

Jul 27, 2018

Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Sion Sono
Stars: Ami Tomite, Kaho, Megumi Kagurazaka, Akihiro Kitamura, Yumi Adachi, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Nakagawa Shoko

If there’s one thing I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt about the films of Japanese auteur SION SONO: love or hate his work, it’s always anything but boring, and you pretty much find yourself kind of speechless at the end.  In fact, his latest, TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL, left me feeling like I’d been punched in the head repeatedly, by Mike Tyson wearing Nerf boxing gloves.  In this movie, edited down to about a three-hour run time from the ten hours of multiple episodes that Sono created for a Amazon Prime Original Limited Series, he gets his “Tarantino” on, and then some. The references to other films, which fly furiously and non-stop, are as varied as nods to SCARFACE, KILL BILL (both volumes), Hammer Dracula films, and the kind of body horror that Stuart Gordon and David Cronenberg would love.

The mythical backstory is something that lovers of manga and anime will sink their teeth into (pun definitely intended), while those not familiar with this balls-to-the-wall style of storytelling will be left goggle-eyed and/or scratching their heads in total bewilderment.

But to try and condense it down, it goes something like this:

Since the 16th Century, the Romanian vampire clan of the Draculas has been forced underground for their survival, by a new and dangerous vampire clan: the Corvins. They gorged themselves on humanity as long as they wished – that is until 1999, when the planetary alignment took the form of a “Grand Cross.” During this alignment, three babies, born at a certain time and date, were fed the sacred blood of the Draculas, in order to fulfill a prophecy that would allow them to rise, in 22 years’ time, help defeat the Corvins, and bring the Dracula clan back into power.  Got all that?

TVH begins in Shinjuku, Japan, in 2021, where one of those babies, Manami (AMI TOMITETAG) is just three hours shy of celebrating her 22nd birthday with her friends.  Some celebration that turns out to be, though, since a bubbly, “Hello Kitty”-type attired girl named Giga (NAKAGAWA SHOKO), shows up and pretty much slaughters everyone in the restaurant, using an arsenal stashed in her pretty, candy-colored rolling suitcase that’s enough to take down an army. The sequence is like Tarantino and Takashi Miike got together and decided to riff on both Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma in gangster mode all at once.

Poor Manami appears to have a panic attack – who wouldn’t at this point? – but it’s more than that: the Dracula blood she was fed as an infant is beginning to take over her body, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.

See, the Corvin clan is feckless, bloodthirsty and completely amoral, and are in it to win it at any cost – even if that cost is global destruction, and now there’s infighting going on between the two vampire sisters who both seek to rule the Corvins: one is the withered, blood-starved “Empress” (YUMEMO ADACHI), mother of Yamada, (SHINNOSUKE MITSUSHIMA), the ruthless leader wanna-be, and the other is the “Princess” of the Clan, (YUMI ADACHI), who literally is the ‘VAMPIRE HOTEL’ of the title, the only entrance to it being an inter-dimensional portal that exists in her gaping vagina. Yes, you heard me right.

Manami’s special blood has the capability of giving those who drink it unlimited, ultimate power, so both clans want her pretty badly. This is jumping ahead a bit, but it doesn’t help her situation that she is the last surviving child of the three that were fed the vampire blood.

And in an insane subplot (are there any other kind in a Sono film?) the Corvins are launching a plan to keep themselves supplied with blood indefinitely after the world ends: they’ve invited a group of mortals to what they think is some kind of “singles mingle” shindig, and they’re not too far off the mark. Only it’s a “Special Coupling Party,” where the participants are expected to hook up, start making babies, and plan to live out their lives inside the Vampire Hotel as living, breathing blood banks.

And I know you want me to tell you that things don’t get anymore complicated than this from here, but yeah, they do. Cold-blooded assassin/enforcer “K” (KAHO), has been sent to infiltrate the Corvins and bring Manami to her ‘rightful’ place with the Draculas.

And even that isn’t all that easily cut-and-dried. There’s a very unstable love triangle going on between Manami, K, and another girl – a beautiful Romanian named Noa, who was charged by the Draculas to entice the two Japanese BFF’s into the vampire life, when they were – get this – exchange students studying in Romania.  You could accuse Sion Sono of a lot of things. But unimaginative storytelling? Not one of them.

So the Corvins and the Draculas battle each other for power and survival within and without, and as the world crumbles, the remnants of humanity, trapped within the Vampire Hotel, struggle to just survive, period.

The weird twists, turns and affectations that are common for this kind of storytelling may be too much for some viewers, such as Yamada’s ‘girlfriend’ being the legendary Countess Elizabeth Bathory, played by COLD FISH and WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL’S MEGUMI KAGURAZAKA, and Manami’s final transformation by the vampire blood, which doesn’t exactly bring about the kind of situational turn you might expect.

Yet, there’s another hallmark of Sono’s films that he also employs here. For all of the blood, biting, bullets and bullshit-craziness, there’s an underlying thread of sentimentalism and even empathy for his characters, from the innocent (Manami) to even the most despicable (Yamada). “Everybody’s looking for something,” as Annie Lennox of The Eurythmics sings, and unfortunately, not everybody finds that something, even at the cost of the lives of their friends and loved ones, and ultimately in some cases, their own.

COLD FISH, as jaw-droppingly nihilistic as it was, was probably Sono’s most accessible film, which I’m glad I got a head start with. Far, far on the distant other end of the spectrum, his recent film TAG and now this one are probably the least, with the plotting for both films seemingly laid out by the director, while under the influence of some major psychotropic drugs.

Yet, you can’t help but admire the staging of the action scenes, especially inside the titular abode, where it’s like a major car crash between AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL on crack and acid, and the best of the “House Of Blue Leaves” sequence from KILL BILL. Think of it as “JAPANESE HORROR STORY: VAMPIRE HOTEL – GUESTS CHECK IN, BUT THEY CAN NEVER LEAVE!”  The performances from all of the cast are appropriately nutty, with one of the bigger surprises being that Sono went for authenticity with the Dracula clan, shooting those sequences in Romania and employing Romanian actors, speaking their native tongue! That was probably an interesting set to be on…

But the main performances that help keep everything from sliding into one babbling, gibbering, impenetrable mess of blood and brains, come from Tomite as Manami and Kaho’s ‘K’. The flashback scenes of them as giggling, happy schoolgirls on a foreign adventure brings to the fore a surprising and unexpected twinge of wistful sadness, which is amplified even more as we are given access to the innermost thoughts of “Monster-Manami” toward the climax, who only ever wanted to be a normal girl with a happy family that loved her and was never granted that opportunity.

If you are a sucker for out-there, unpredictable filmmaking, you are going to love the kimono off of TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL. Everyone else may probably want to find their ‘happy place’, and keep their distance. For my taste, it’s getting a well-earned three-and-a-half out of five stars.