Sion Sono Leaves Japan Behind with ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’

We chat with the director about his magical relationship with Nicolas Cage and why Western audiences prefer his movies.
Sion Sono Prisoners Of The Ghostland Interview

Check the Gate is a reoccurring column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with Sion Sono about how he and Nicolas Cage are a match made in Hell in Prisoners of the Ghostland.

Peanut butter and chocolate, Nicolas Cage and Sion Sono. They’re two great tastes that taste great together. And once you’ve had them together, can they ever taste the same apart again? Probably not.

Prisoners of the Ghostland is the English language debut for Sono, but it doesn’t lose a dribble of that madness that drowns the Japanese filmmaker’s previous flicks, such as Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and Tokyo Tribe. The plot straps Cage’s “Hero” into a bomb-vest carefully stitched to eradicate his testicles if his character wanders away from his mission.

The character is hired by Bill Moseley’s “Governor” to retrieve his adopted granddaughter (Sofia Boutella) from the mystical Ghostland. In his performance, Cage channels Charles Bronson as Hero terrorizes those who dare oppose him.

The movie is a lot. But, it’s that “a lot” that sends tingles through Sono and Cage obsessives. These two filmmakers care nothing for realism. They’re masters of the extreme, chasing melodrama and hyperbole to achieve emotional truth. Only in the heightened can they find recognizable, relatable pain.

As excited as we are to see Sono and Cage working together, the director is even more so. When I suggest that the two feel like natural pairs, perfectly suited to express each other cinematically, Sono balks at the notion. You wouldn’t expect the filmmaker who once lavishly and lovingly erected a yakuza musical to be so humble.

Sion Sono, the Nicolas Cage Fanboy

“I don’t think I’m on the same level as Nicolas Cage,” Sion Sono tells me. “I am so lucky and grateful of being able to walk with Nicolas Cage — the great Nicolas Cage. I’m just so appreciative that it’s happened. And from now on, I want to continue making films in English, and this film feels like a great start to that new career.”

The fandom for Cage radiates from Sono. He’s in awe that the actor agreed to make this little movie with him. Cage brings a laundry list-length filmography with him on set, but you wouldn’t know it. The actor arrives only to help the director achieve his dream. There is zero display of ego.

“Everyone knows Nic Cage,” Sono continues. “He’s worked on so many great movies. However, when he joined this film, he worked like a newcomer. He worked as if this was his first film. And he worked with the team. This is what makes Cage such a great actor.”

Prisoners of the Ghostland Needed Cowboy Cage

While Cage was eager to play along, he did arrive in Japan with a strong idea of who his character was. And what kind of film he was in. Cage imagined his disgraced bank robber as a wandering cowboy. But not just any cowboy. His Hero would not have been portrayed by Clint Eastwood or Lee Van Cleef, or, god forbid, John Wayne. Cage’s cowboy was Charles Bronson through and through, and Sono had already arrived at that consideration before Cage’s plane touched down.

“That was a coincidence,” says Sono. “When I read the script, I immediately thought about Sergio Leone and Once Upon a Time in the West and stuff like that. When I brought this up to Nic Cage, he was already thinking the same thing. Immediately, I knew we were going to get along with each other.”

Sono is incredibly excited to be making English language movies and wants to continue to do so. It did not require a shift in his mindset. When everyone is working from the same point of view, language is merely a secondary issue.

“The process was the same,” he says. “Yes, there was Nic Cage and Sofia Boutella. But really, Nic Cage came to Japan to shoot a Japanese film. I feel that’s true.”

Prisoners of the Ghostland Could Be Sion Sono’s Last Japanese Film

Sion Sono wanted to make Prisoners of the Ghostland in Mexico, but finances forced him to remain in Japan. It’s a country that he feels removed from, and he’s currently trying to embrace the crowd that actually shows up for his movies. He’s no longer interested in pursuing home turf attendance.

“I’m my own audience,” says Sono. “I need to be satisfied with what I make. And I feel like my films are too much for the majority of the Japanese audience. Somehow, in Japan, people think that they’re too extreme or something like that. They don’t like my movies as much as I want them to. Sometimes, I feel a little bit like, ‘Why?’ I wish they would understand me a little bit better.”

Rather than dwelling on this disparity, Sono charges ahead, jumping into the market that does seem to devour and enjoy his films. Future team-ups with Nicolas Cage not only seem possible but inevitable. Cage’s approval is confirmation that what Sono is making is working, and molding his aesthetic to match Japan is fruitless.

“From now on,” Sono says, “it feels like there’ll be a lot more English language films than Japanese language films. I grew up watching American and European movies when I was a kid. All of my influences feel like they are already coming from the West. So, maybe that could be the reason why the Japanese audience wouldn’t like my Japanese films. Maybe I haven’t been making Japanese films. Maybe this is not what Japanese films should be.”

Whatever the case, Sion Sono is through with questioning Japan’s rejection. Prisoners of the Ghostland was an exhilarating experience for him, and he wants more of the same. He fits inside extremity, and so does Nicolas Cage. They’re partners, egging each other on. Slowing down, or quieting, is not an option. Louder, faster, bloodier, crazier — put an -er on it, and that’s where Sono is heading.

Prisoners of the Ghostland crashes into theaters and on VOD on Friday, September 17th.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)