In actress Megumi Kagurazaka's eyes, director Sion Sono - with whom she has made three films - is sensitive, child-like and a hopeless romantic. The fact that he's also her husband probably explains her perception of him, but it's a somewhat surprising description of a filmmaker who has made such controversial movies.
His work includes films about schoolgirls killing themselves by jumping off subway platforms (Suicide Club), a teenage girl who kills her abusive father and her classmates (Love Exposure), a goldfish-trader's daughter falling foul of a sadistic couple (Cold Fish), and a homemaker whose life is turned upside down when she begins a part-time career in prostitution (Guilty of Romance).
'He really understands how women feel,' she says, of Sono. The couple were recently in town to promote Guilty of Romance, in which she plays Izumi, the 21st century Japanese equivalent of Catherine Deneuve's character in Luis Bunuel's 1967 film Belle du Jour. 'A lot of times I think he's a very feminine person; the screenplays and stories he writes are very, very sensuous. He knows how women think, and his films are romantic. Probably that's why he can make films with such cruelty in them.'
While Guilty of Romance is a defiantly gory affair - Izumi's story runs parallel with a police investigation into brutal serial killings - the bloodshed and sex obscure a theme that runs through most of Sono's films. It deals with the plight of a confused individual trying to break free from an oppressive, patriarchical social order to find her own self-worth.
Sono, 50, says the film's title is a charge he could level at himself. 'Rather than describing myself as romantic, I think you could say I look at this world like a boy,' he says. 'What I've always wanted to express with my films is the importance of love, but somehow audiences keep on misunderstanding me.'
What Guilty says about love is how poorly the concept sits in a society where the maltreatment of women is omnipresent. 'I'm not just interested in telling stories about women, but it's just that in Japan, they are suffering from such unfairness,' he says. 'They still get sexually harassed in the workplace, where their career prospects aren't that good in the first place. And then at home, they are expected to take on a lot of responsibilities.'
Sono based the story on the real-life experiences of a highly paid office worker who worked as an escort in the evenings. 'I was thinking: 'What does that girl want? It's definitely not money - nor is it the sex ... so is it loneliness, or a sense of something missing?''
Having attained fame with his early films, Sono has recently surprised many with some serene, family dramas: Be Sure to Share, his 2009 semi-autobiographical film about a young man's reconciliation with his cancer-stricken father; Himizu, of last year, a story about two adolescents surviving the fallout of the Fukushima nuclear-plant radiation leaks; and he has just completed The Land of Hope, a more upbeat take on characters persisting with their lives after the deadly earthquakes which rocked northern Japan in March last year.
Guilty of Romance opens on Thursday; Cold Fish will be screened on limited release at the Broadway Cinematheque from April 18