A schoolgirl fights, runs and lives through one absolutely terrible day in Sion Sono’s wild action-horror.
“Stay strong. Life is surreal. Don’t let it consume you.”
If I had to describe complex provocateur film director Sion Sono in very few words to someone unfamiliar with him, it would be probably be “arthouse Takashi Miike”. Both filmmakers use shock values and z-cinema tropes in their work, they both are mind-blowingly prolific and both have something of an underground following in the west. But while Miike frequently eschews deeper, real-world themes in favour of more untamed content, Sono seems to have something more to say with a number of his films.
Tag is one such film. There’s a chance you might have seen the opening to this movie without even knowing what it is as it became something of a meme after being released online. There’s a busload of schoolgirl, all playfully chatting and throwing pillows about for some reason. Mitsuko (Reina Triendl but sometimes Mariko Shinoda and Erina Mano) is a bookish girl, who drops her pen while writing down some poetry. As she gets down to pick it up, a deadly gust of wind bisects the bus, including everyone on board. Now pursued by this killer wind, Mitsuko belts it down the road and encounters other people who all suffer the same fate.
She keeps running until she reaches a high school, where three girls seem to know who she is – but who Mitsuko doesn’t. The group is led by Aki (Yuki Sakurai), who acts as something of a white rabbit to Mitsuko’s Alice. Together with Taeko (Aki Hiraoka) and Sur (Ami Tomite) they decide to skip school and hang out at a lake. Sur, whose name is short for surreal, talks Ian Malcolm-levels of chaos theory, and they all head back. When they return to school, the teachers all take out assault rifles and grenade launchers and slaughter all the girls. Mitsuko flees, transforms as if she was quantum leaping, and ends up in another reality – one which no doubt ends in some sort of massacre.
The movie sort of continues like this for the majority of its runtime, and at first it looks like it’s sort of about nothing – just killing. But there’s more to this movie than meets the eye. Occasionally it slows down, or talks about the inevitability of destiny. Sometimes the themes of the film are explicitly spelled out; Sur gets a lot of these in, from “every girl is reborn and lives twice” to “maybe our destiny is decided and we’re trapped in it”, Tag is hardly trying to be subtle. But in a film that opens the way it does, it’s hardly like subtlety was ever on the menu to begin with.
If you’re looking for some real grindhouse-style schlock, Tag does provide it but the complicated story and general what-the-fuckery is probably going to alienate audiences who didn’t sign up for the Gozu portion of the film. Sono has a number of movies that scratch that itch better, like Tokyo Tribe. Once we’re introduced to Mitsuko’s friends – and we start to realise that every single person in the film (up until a point) is female – it becomes obvious that Tag is about more than just killing off schoolgirls, despite what its awful American tagline would have you believe.
It’s this commitment to another layer that makes it stand out a bit more. I’m hardly saying that the film executes its feminist message flawlessly (Mitsuko’s method of dealing with everything at the end seems a tad weak), but the way Sono criticises a male dominated entertainment industry and society as a whole through its treatment of women as victims or objects is fresh and gives some of the previous scenes of Aki and Mitsuko more depth. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of content – I couldn’t quite figure just how much I liked it when the end credits rolled, but I knew that I had enjoyed it for what it was worth and the effort put in to the production was strong enough for it to me to have a good memory of the film. I think Tag could have been a lot weaker if it hadn’t tried to do more, but for those looking for something visceral and nothing else, well, the first five minutes are probably still on YouTube.
Verdict: Tag might be flawed, but its good intentions and commitment to the premise elevates it above what it could have been.
Overall entertainment: 7.5/10
Sex: Plenty of upskirt/10
Lesbian overtones: Subtle?
Reality: Where does it end? Where does it begin?
Also known as: Real Onigokko, リアル鬼ごっこ
Director: Sion Sono
Writers: Sion Sono, Yusuke Yamada (novel)
Reina Triendl – Mitsuko
Mariko Shinoda – Keiko
Erina Mano – Izumi
Yuki Sakurai – Aki
Aki Hiraoka – Taeko
Ami Tomite – Sur
Maryjun Takahashi – Jun
Sayaka Isoyama – Mutsuko