If you see just one new Sion Sono movie this year (and you potentially have as many as six to choose from, considering his current rate of output), make it “Love & Peace,” the wonderfully daffy passion project it reportedly took the appallingly prolific helmer more than two decades to make. It’s also the one that doesn’t center around upskirt schoolgirl fantasies and unspeakable sexual fetishes, making this tender and seemingly out-of-character fairy tale — in which Tokyo’s biggest dork partners with the world’s biggest turtle to become the country’s biggest rock star — a delightful wish-fulfillment pop musical with entry points for audiences of all ages.
Best known on the international festival circuit for 2008’s “Love Exposure,” a nearly-three-hour throwback to Japan’s pinkie exploitation-pic tradition featuring girl-gang battles and sexual transgression aplenty, Sono surprised audiences at the London Film Festival last year, where he was invited to program a classic movie of his choice, by picking “Babe: Pig in the City.” Surrealism has long been one of the helmer’s signatures, but where, fans wondered, had this talking-animal soft spot come from?
“Love & Peace” serves as Sono’s tribute to such out-there family fare, with a dash of kaiju craziness (those super-sized, town-wrecking Japanese monsters) thrown in for good measure: It’s “Babe” by way of “Godzilla,” except that here, our human protagonist, Kyo (Hiroki Hasegawa), inhabits the pigsty, while the giant reptile in question has only benevolent intentions. The sort of social outcast who once might have been played by Rick Moranis, Kyo is picked on wherever he turns: at work, on the subway, even at home, where he ifKummagines personal insults beamed directly from the television set.
Though the lonely young man fancies equally awkward co-worker Yuko (Kumiko Aso), he lacks the courage to tell her, instead deciding to focus all of his attention on a newly adopted turtle — the only thing that seems to be keeping him from suicide. Kyo christens the teeny-tiny creature “Pikadon” (a word associated with atomic blasts and a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, given his future growth potential). After rough days in the office, he spends his evenings obsessing over his new pet, all the while confessing his wildest dreams: to break out of his office-drone existence and become a world-famous rock star.
Little does Kyo realize, Pikadon is listening, and the grateful runt will do everything in its power to make his owner happy — even after his co-workers force Kyo to flush his newfound (and only) friend down the toilet into Tokyo’s sewer system. That indignity proves to be the best thing that has ever happened to either the turtle or its owner, for Pikadon lucks upon an Island of Misfit Toys-esque domain, where a benevolent old hobo (Toshiyuki Nishida) collects assorted companions tossed out by their owners above ground — forgotten dolls, broken robots, lost rabbits and so on — and imbues them with magic powers.
For this lonely chelonian, who appears to be steering into dangerous teenage-mutant-ninja territory, the cozy sewer tunnel serves as his new home — and a supernatural workshop where the old man (evidently a sorcerer of some kind) brews up a batch of magic pellets designed to give his brood the power to speak. An extra-strong dose sends the once-Hot-Wheels-scale Pikadon on a growth spurt that won’t stop until he’s Monster Truck-sized, climbing the walls of Nippon Stadium, the very venue where Kyo once dreamed of performing.
Meanwhile, Kyo undergoes a transformation of his own, going from cringing crybaby to ultra-confident rock star, thanks to a nation-uniting hit song — a consumer-friendly, group-hug jingle in the spirit of “We Are the World” or “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” — whose lyrics spring directly from promises made to his turtle. And thus, the two rejects are reunited under entirely new circumstances. Kyo’s arc echoes Brian De Palma’s gonzo rock opera “Phantom of the Paradise,” among other cult classics. Needless to say, audiences have seen variations on this formula countless times before, though Sono embraces that sense of familiarity, giving the film a retro feel that should transport older audiences (his core fanbase, especially abroad) back to their youth.
Rather than leaning on computer animation, the director resurrects practical-effects technology that dominated in the heyday of Jim Henson and Stan Winston, presenting a full coterie of non-digital creatures: cats and dogs, live and stuffed, plus dinos, dolls and all sorts of puppet-like toys. As Pikadon grows, the little turtle is replaced by ever-larger animatronic substitutes, complete with cartoonishly cute googly eyes.
Hasegawa plays his part as hammishly over-the-top as it gets — so broadly, in fact, that his performance borders on off-putting, although it proves much more bearable in musician mode than as the hunched-over office loser he leaves behind. Sono himself wrote the film’s title song, which further reinforces his standing as the hardest-working figure in Japanese show business. Still, there’s a world of difference between quantity and quality where Sono’s output is concerned, and though “Love & Peace” is endearing in its own scrappily uneven way, he’d do well to slow things down in the future, lest he end up permanently labeled as the country’s next Takashi Miike, another overly prolific Japanese helmer known for toeing the line between haste and hackery — a curse no wish-granting turtle could possibly untangle.