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Sonoda Kenji's The Sakura of Madness

by Ethan Tussey

by David Z. Morris for IN MEDIA RES

Kyouki no Sakura (2002) is a hugely compelling film from Japan, directed by Sonoda Kenji from a novel by Hikita Kunio. The focus of the film is a tiny street gang, three young men whose love of foreign culture, including hip hop and (in one of the film’s recurring themes) foreign food uncomfortably coexists with their professed "Neo-Tojoist" (i.e. fascist) ideology. The film is extremely gritty, gruesomely violent, and shot with a manic surrealism, but amidst the spectacle, it's a powerful exploration of the psychic tensions of cultural globalization.

The soundtrack is by King Giddra, the most popular Japanese hip hop group of the 1990s.  They are widely credited with introducing ‘real’ hip hop to Japan - as well as being early harbingers of a growing nationalist right-wing hip hop movement. King Giddra members K Dub Shine and Zeebra have publicly endorsed fascist planks including a “Japan for Japanese” immigration policy, remilitarization, and denial of Japanese war crimes. While the film presents a psychologically realistic portrait of young nationalists’ motivations, King Giddra’s theme for the movie is considerably less subtle, extratextually positioning the doomed protagonists as models for Japan’s proud, powerful “Generation Next.”

I hope these three clips capture the film’s layered complexity. Dressed in pseudo-uniforms replete with Rising Sun symbols, the gang first brutally beat a group of foreign and Japanese pimps, seen as ‘traitors’ to Japan, while a professional hitman disposes of an inconvenient woman. Here we also get a glimpse of the way global hip-hop fashion has infused working class habitus in Japan. Next, gang leader Yamaguchi has a mournful rooftop conversation with his Yakuza patron, unabashedly admitting his love for foreign products: “delicious food is delicious” (Note that this is just one point where the subtitles hopelessly mangle the often elegant dialogue). Finally, we see the gang’s botched raid on a hip hop/reggae club catering to foreigners, part of their campaign against ‘foreign corruption.’ As they confront the alluring and terrifying Americans whose culture has such a singular pull for them, they externalize a psychic conflict at the heart of Japanese identity.

For more on Kyouki no Sakura, right-wing hip hop, and Japanese neofascism, watch for my article “The Sakura of Madness: Japan’s Nationalist Hip-Hop and the Parallax of Globalized Identity Politics,” forthcoming in Communication, Culture, and Critique.

Sonoda Kenji's The Sakura of Madness

Clips from Sonoda Kenji's The Sakura of Madness

from Madness in Bloom (2002)
Creator: Sonoda Kenji
Distributor: Aries
Posted by Ethan Tussey