You never know quite what you’re going to get with Sion Sono.
The cult Japanese director’s most recent film, Shinjuku Swan, was a live-action adaptation of a manga about a young talent scout’s forays into the red light district; the one before, Tokyo Tribe, a futuristic gang warfare film featuring almost literal “rap battles”. The common themes have tended to be manga, gangsters, and music. Love & Peace has only the latter, but manages to work high anxiety, a giant turtle, and Christmas miracles into the mix instead. Sounds like a decent trade-off.
Ryo (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a lowly office drone who traded early dreams of musical stardom for a life of workplace bullying and frequent hysterical bathroom breaks. The whole world seems to be laughing at him in his doubled-up self-loathing, from the people on the bus during his morning commute to a televised panel on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — and it’s part of the unpredictable genius of Sono’s film that, far from Ryo being paranoid, they literally are.
Secretly in love with the frumpy Yuko (Kumiko Aso) he instead lavishes affection on a tiny turtle whom he names Pikadon after the Japanese nickname for the atomic bomb. One day Pika takes unexpected trip down the toilet, leaving Ryo utterly inconsolable.
Arriving in a subterranean Santa’s grotto full of abandoned pets and toys, all cared for by a big-hearted drunk (Toshiyuki Nishida). One magical mishap later and Pika has begun uncontrollably growing and Ryo’s wishes have started coming true. Unceremoniously kidnapped by a passing rock band and forced to perform before a gathered crowd, the newly christened Wild Ryuzo finds himself on a meteoric ride to fame and fortune.
More interesting is the parallel plot which by the midway point essentially turns Love & Peace into a wonderfully saccharine, big-budget Christmas special and cautionary tale about rampant capitalism. Hasagawa captures his character’s abrupt transformation from putz to diva, but it’s the giant animatronic turtle that carries us along.
Sono thankfully never tempers the charm of his creation by suggesting the toys — including a grumpy cat and a plush dinosaur almost as lovable as Rex from Toy Story — are some sort of alcoholic hallucination. Combining a kaiju movie with the Game of Life is tonally inconsistent, but there’s a lot of wacky, family-friendly fun to be had in Love & Peace’s vibrant, lurid, and surprisingly catchy 117 minutes.
Unexpected, sure, but then again, what in Sono’s filmography so far hasn’t been? From 2001’s bleak Suicide Club all the way through to today, long may he keep surprising us.