Equal parts flash-trash exploitation gorefest and punchy pro-feminist action-fantasy, “Tag” is another feather in the highly idiosyncratic cap of Japanese helmer Sion Sono. This cavalcade of carnage set in a bizarre parallel world where women are chased and slaughtered by all manner of human and supernatural forces hits the sweet spot where grindhouse meets arthouse. Far too extreme for mainstream acceptance, the pic failed to make much of an impression on its July 11 local release, but the outlook is brighter elsewhere. Recent appearances at BiFan and Fantasia should be just the start of a lengthy fest run that will in turn boost the film’s smallscreen sales fortunes.
Even by Sono’s standards — 25 features and TV projects in the past 10 years — he’s been especially prolific in 2015. “Tag” follows “Shinjuku Swan” as his fourth release of the year, with “The Virgin Psychics” due next in September. Situated closer to the extravagant excess of works such as the gang warfare musical “Tokyo Tribe” than the slow-burn psychodrama of his four-hour epic “Love Exposure, ” “Tag” at least shares the latter film’s obsession with female underwear; such is the frequency of shots showing exposed briefs that the movie could accurately be categorized as “J-upskirts horror.”
The source material is Yusuke Yamada’s 2001 novel, “Real Onigokko,” which has already been mined for “The Chasing Game,” a five-film series produced between 2008 and 2012. Sono has taken only the very basic premise of Yamada’s story, which concerned people with the same surname being targeted for death by malevolent forces. In constant danger here is a sole female whose name and physical appearance change twice in the course of very strange events.
The woman in question is Mitsuko (Reina Triendl), a poetry-writing schoolgirl who’s en route to summer camp. In a sequence that even hard-to-impress horror hounds are likely to find genuinely jaw-dropping, everyone but Mitsuko is killed when two buses carrying the students are horizontally sliced apart by a deadly wind. Having survived by virtue of leaning over to pick up a pen at the point of impact, Mitsuko instinctively runs for her life down a country road littered with torsos. For a good 10 minutes, dozens of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists are bisected by the returning wind while Mitsuko remains alive by hitting the deck at the vital moment.
Though nothing that follows can match the wow factor of this opening setpiece, Sono hardly rests on his laurels, keeping the gore score high and impressive throughout. Next up, a bewildered Mitsuko makes her way to an all-girls’ high school where everyone seems to know her, but she recognizes only her best pal, Aki (Yuki Sakurai). It’s not long before Mitsuko is again caught in a bloodbath. The perpetrators this time are a couple of teachers who suddenly assault the student body with cartoonishly oversized machine guns.
Again escaping death by running hard and fast, Mitsuko enters a town populated entirely by women. Taking a leaf out of Luis Bunuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire” and a dash of Jacques Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” Mitsuko transforms into Keiko (Mariko Shinoda), a 25-year-old bride who’s whisked off to a nightmarish wedding by local cop Tomoko (Hikaru Horiguchi) and a gaggle of giggling friends. Several bouts of bloodshed later, Keiko then morphs into Izumi (Erina Mano), a long-distance runner who encounters characters both friendly and menacing from prior events.
For viewers unfamiliar with the novel or its previous adaptations, the question of whether it’s all a dream or if some omnipotent force is in charge remains tantalizing until deep into the proceedings. Also intriguing is Aki’s reappearance at key moments, and comments by peripheral characters that bounce back into focus as the Mitsuko/Keiko/Izumi tale becomes increasingly twisted. Making the strongest impression in this regard is Sur (Ami Tomite), a school pal of Mitsuko’s whose nickname is short for “surreal.” Sur’s belief that fate can be overcome by radical acts of spontaneity — and her mantra that “life is surreal, don’t let it consume you” — come vividly into play in the final sci-fi-tinged segments, which, significantly, bring the story’s first male characters into the frame. It’s still anyone’s guess as to exactly what the “2001”-ish finale means, yet somehow it’s satisfying in relation to what’s preceded it.
High levels of upskirt photography and grisly dismemberment notwithstanding, it’s perfectly legitimate to read “Tag” as a girl-power “Alice in Wonderland” variant in which three versions of Japanese womanhood find the means to kick against a male-controlled system that would seek to assign them positions of subservience and/or victimhood. Though action and excitement are clearly Sono’s primary concerns, viewers searching for deeper meaning to all this mayhem will certainly find plenty to think about along the way.
Performances are uniformly energetic and effective from a vibrant cast. German-Japanese actress-model Triendl shines as the opening chapter’s terrified heroine. “Yakuza Apocalypse” actress Sakurai is terrific as the gal-pal whose fierce loyalty to all three incarnations of the heroine gives the yarn a solid emotional core.
Prosthetic effects aces; Yoshihiro Nishimura (“Dead Sushi,” “Tokyo Gore Police,” “Zombie Ass: The Toilet of the Dead”) has a field day doing what he does best. Photography is fine, with excellent deployment of drone-mounted cameras to capture aerial menace in the opening scenes and the expressive faces of Mitsuko, Keiko and and Izumi as they sprint away from danger and toward an unpredictable future. Tomonobu Kikuchi’s peppy score and a selection of crunching guitar-rock numbers by Japanese band Mono are nicely in tune with the frequently hallucinatory tale. All other technical contributions are on the money.