The best way to describe the experience of watching Prisoners of the Ghostland is to imagine trying to watch Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, The Last Temptation of Christ and Yojimbo simultaneously on one TV set such that the images and sounds of all three rise and fall in a strange discordant melody.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is a 2021 film starring Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella and directed by Sion Sono in his first release outside of the Japanese market. Some people have referred to it as Sono’s English language debut but that’s somewhat deceptive as a full appreciation for the script of Prisoners of the Ghostland would depend largely on an understanding of English, Japanese and Mandarin. The film includes substantial dialog in all three of these languages and no subtitles were furnished at least in the version I watched. Considering some elements of the production I suspect this to be intentional.
Sono is a name that is likely at least familiar to people in the horror scene as his previous works like Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table and Cold Fish have attracted significant critical attention. Sono’s work fits very much into the auteur / small-group collaborator mold with their hallmark being a surrealist sort of dream logic: particularly a regular breaking of classical convention regarding unity of place and unity of time. This is certainly the case in Prisoners of the Ghostland but in general what’s striking about this film is its fundamental incompleteness.
Now this might be a strange thing to say about a movie with the complicated and stunning props, practical sets, costumes and action direction of this movie. The entire thing is a maximalist feast for the eyes as every frame drips with artistry. Blocking is, much like in Dune, quite formal but where Dune provided a very operatic blocking this one is more akin to a Dionysian ritual as characters crowd the frame. Choruses cluster around the the coryphaeus like anxious birds, workers haul ropes, roaring and grunting in the background. Cowboys and samurai surround Hero and Yasujiro weapons creating an inward-pointing circle. Every scene is a cacophony of sight and sound as characters speak, chant, shout over each other and snarl like animalistic beasts – often such that the various languages of the film can become garbled and indistinct until you realize the madness has settled into a comprehensible chant. “It stopped. Short. Never to go again when the old man died.”
Every manner undertaken by every person excepting our five principals (Hero, Bernice, Psycho, Governor and Yasujiro) is deeply ritualistic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with as much chanting, even Koyannisquatsi pales compared to this one, and the only films I’ve seen with more time spent on dancing were musical theatre. But even with all this… stuff… people, dialog, dance, swordfights, Nicolas Cage making funny faces (come on you knew he was going to do that), the movie feels like a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
It seems as if this entire lush film was itself a vast synecdoche for some grander story in which its myriad elements become metaphorical referents to… something else. Something outside. As I’ve hinted at before, this film is orgiastic. I don’t mean in some sort of vulgar sense of “containing orgies” which is perhaps good considering how this film problematizes a triangular formation between sex, power and exploitation. Sono conjures such discomfort from the brush of a red-gloved hand on a child’s head that I’m unsure I’d want to see an actual orgy from him. This movie is one of the most libidinally charged works of art I’ve ever seen. Everything is fully sexual.
But, no, this movie is orgiastic in that it plays out its actors in the process of a vast expenditure of jouissance. The chanting, rhymes, choruses and dancing all serve to bring forth a sense of frenzy in the film that bubbles maniacally beneath even its quietest moments. This is a slow burn of a movie. Prior to the climax it deploys violence carefully, in micro-doses. We are allowed to know that Hero and Yasujiro are strong fighters but we see remarkably little of them fighting – especially Hero. Early fight scenes are tinged by a strange reluctance for Yasujiro wherein it seems the death that surrounds him is as much part of the vast life-ritual this film comprises as the dance and chanting. On many occasions other men will attempt to lay the swordsman low without any apparent motive or warning. In one scene a drunken swordsman calls Yasujiro out to fight in the street. An entire gang joins him. The man has no prior history with Yasujiro and the dialog is in Japanese and remains closed to an English speaking audience – a remarkable choice for a pivotal character moment in a putatively English language film. In another scene Yasujiro is called upon to demonstrate his prowess by killing another of the Governor’s men, as a threat to Hero, he does so efficiently and with minimal fuss like he’s taking out the garbage or washing the dishes. The men he fights seem like furies in a frenzy in comparison.
This is all very Dionysian. The camera treats swordfights as every bit as ritualized as dancing and as chants. There is as much menace in memories of women slowly throwing balls up and down as in the samurai’s sword and as much of the rite in his blade as in the chants of the titular prisoners. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche starts by picking at what Dionysos should be taken to mean in the arts, saying of his name, “here spoke—people said to themselves with misgivings—something like a mystic and almost mænadic soul, which, undecided whether it should disclose or conceal itself, stammers with an effort and capriciously as in a strange tongue,” and there is, in this film, an indecision about disclosure. We are brought to understand that Hero suffers under an overabundance of guilt. There was a robbery that went wrong and people died.
Nietzsche situates the birth of the tragic chorus in Dionysos and via Chimera this film includes just that. Chimera is one of the leaders of the titular prisoners who seem to have coalesced around her and Enoch. These are portentous names. Enoch presents as a preacher. He is a bespectacled man with a book he always carries with him, like a holy text. Enoch, of course, was a very holy man, one who walked into Heaven alive.
Chimera is a wildcard among the prisoners. She walk about the place dressed in funeral robes with a haughty air of a queen or a priestess. She speaks exclusively in Mandarin but she is followed by a chorus who translate everything she says into English. Their voices are slightly discordant and this sometimes muddies all but the most perfunctory of questions: “你看什么 – what did you see? 你看什么 – what did you see?” (你看什么? perhaps better translates to “what are you looking at?” and in the moment of the question Hero is lost in reverie of a vision received in a dream. This collapse of temporalities is common in this film. He is looking at / he did see / he will see all at once.) A chimera is a creature composed of many animals, like a coryphaeus surrounded by her choir, but a chimera is also a monster. Bellerophon heroically killed one. Things didn’t go too well for him afterward though.
At this point we might ask whether Prisoners of the Ghostland is a tragedy with the way it deploys both the formal trappings of Greek tragedy and so much allusion to tragic and divine figures. The initial reaction might be to say no. Hero wins! The prisoners are freed! Bernice shoots the governor! Hero slays Yashujiro! But let’s return to Nietzsche and how he, in the frame of the Dionysian, defines tragedy.
Tragedy is, “The highest art in the yea-saying to life.” Nietzsche describes how the flourishing of a situation of over-abundance, of jouissance, gives birth to the need for the Dionysian. Largely fueled by his frustration surrounding the limitations of Wagner, Nietzsche proposes a new flourishing of the Dionysian within music – and this as a new flourishing of tragedy. This moment has yet to come – tragedy remains trapped at the periphery of the arts. Sometimes it is allowed to bleed back in but at best we simply get anti-heroes. And half these are afforded a reprieve from any truly tragic ends, allowed to retire and enjoy a time of peace after the conclusion of their trials. Most everything is tragicomedic these days. But all this seems to propose that Prisoners of the Ghostland is a tragedy. But if that is so it’s certainly not an ordinary one.
The value of tragedy is in its ability to capture the entirety of the human experience; and this entirety includes measures of triumph, abjection and nothingness. The standard format of tragedy as we generally receive it now is a work that orders these elements of the human condition in precisely this pattern. First MacBeth succeeds then he suffers then he dies.
But Prisoners of the Ghostland lurks at the boundary between life and death. The eponymous prisoners are trapped in their zone not by the guns and swords of the Governor but by some quirk of metaphysics – you cannot leave.
Patrolling the border is Psycho, Hero’s one-time partner in crime. Psycho is either a ghost escaped from hell or a man scarred and mutated by a nuclear accident. He may ultimately be both. He materializes and disappears in haze and blinding light. He seems very real until he vanishes. It seems as if Psycho and his followers are the wardens keeping the prisoners in but if they are then their motives are as obscure as the as the way in which they’re persuaded to stand aside.
The first time Hero meets Psycho at the border he is attempting to return to the Governor with Bernice.
She’s lost her voice due to the trauma she’s suffered and this presents a problem for Hero as the Governor has given him only five days to collect Bernice and return with her. He’s wearing a suit covered in bombs and they will explode if he’s late. But her voice can unlock two extra days to return and he desperately needs the time.
The bombs are at his throat (and will explode if he attempts to take the suit off), his arms (and will explode if the sensors in the suit detect that he intends to strike a woman), and his testicles (and will explode if he becomes aroused.)
Hero nearly sets off one of the bombs on his arm in a moment of frustrated pique that Bernice won’t speak but he is able to rein in the impulse to violence fast enough to avoid losing the arm. Soon after the still non-verbal Bernice indicates she’s thirsty and he gives her water. She drinks greedily, taking in too much, and the water begins flowing in rivulets down her chin and neck. Hero becomes aroused (this movie is very libidinal and almost every movement in the film is already invested with a sexualized charge) and the warning on his suit chimes. He leaps away from Bernice but his erection proves harder to subdue than his anger. One of the bombs at his testicles explodes, cleanly severing it, Hero raises it up in his hand and then collapses at the precipice of death.
He has an incomplete vision and returns to encounter Psycho. In his vision we see that partway through a bank robbery Psycho decided, seemingly without reason, that he would rather commit a massacre. Hero fought him and the brawl spilled out into the street but not before Psycho killed several people including a child. In the street police were waiting and Hero tried to surrender but Psycho decided to fight the cops. Hero ran and the police shot wildly into the crowd, killing several bystanders including Bernice’s mother. Bernice was wounded and was selected by the Governor to be one of his “granddaughters” in this moment. Hero discovers that the guilt he’s been feeling is not for having killed but rather for having survived as innocent people died in his stead.
After Hero returns from his vision Psycho’s followers try to separate Hero from Bernice and in the chaos of the melee the suit misinterprets his attempts to protect Bernice as an intent to strike her. The moment the bomb on his arm explodes Psycho shoots it off and Hero is still injured but not as badly as he might have been. It’s actually quite unclear from the action whether Hero’s wound is made better or aggravated by what Psycho does and while he doesn’t lose the limb he does lose use of the hand on it.
This moment of excess pain pushes Hero into the completion of his vision and he returns with a sense of purpose he didn’t have before. He returns to the Ghostland settlement and rallies the Prisoners. He returns to the boundary and he confronts Psycho – and they reconcile – Psycho forgives Hero for fleeing and Hero seems to absolve Psycho for his misdeeds in light of the misfortune he’s suffered since. Psycho permits the Prisoners to leave the Ghostland and departs, clearing the path for Hero and Bernice to return to the Governor.
Now it’s very unclear in this movie precisely where the boundary between life and death is. While it does seem on the balance that the prisoners were living people trapped in a strange situation there is an equal textual argument that they are ghosts and dead already.
With this in mind it’s not entirely clear during Hero’s two near-death ecstatic experiences whether he’s actually alive and suffering abjection or dead and suffering damnation. The line between abjection and damnation is as blurred as the line between life and death.
Hero is half a martyr. Two half-deaths to equal a whole. Loss of one arm. Loss of one testicle. Rendered half a man. But he replaces his wounded hand with a very phallic metal cylinder out of which his crushed and pulpy hand extrudes obscenely and which is topped by a sword. While not every sword in every movie should be interpreted as a penis this one almost certainly should be.
We find then in Hero this collapse of all things in life inward toward him – he experiences oblivion and returns – twice. He experiences abjection, suffering two symbolic injuries that stand in for a division of the man. He then experiences triumph. As such this film contains that same complete experience that a tragedy provides, “the same thing in a deceptive form,” without tragicomic blunting. Prisoners of the Ghostland is not a classical Greek tragedy but with its wild Dionysian excess and with the completeness of being of its protagonist it may as well be.
But this raises the question of why one would go to the trouble of inverting a tragedy? Why would one go about creating a tragic story – not a tragicomedic one – and then allow its Hero to prevail? To what end?
The other prison in Prisoners of the Ghostland is called Samurai Town.
A few plot summaries refer to Samurai Town as being in Japan but I find the textual basis for this weak at best. Samurai Town contains many Japanese people but they’re all caught in a strangely anachronistic Western gaze of Japan. Bits and pieces of the Western idea of Japanese identity – the Samurai, the Geisha-as-prostitute, smartphone photography and modern cars – all collide in Samurai Town along with a bizarre infusion of the Wild West. There are cowboys who can posse up behind a Sherriff and there are Samurai variously deferential to or homicidal toward Yashujiro. The ruler, the Governor, is like a fetish version of an Antebellum plantation owner. Most, if not all, of the subjects of Samurai Town appear to be his slaves or his enablers. Bernice starts the movie fleeing Samurai Town and into the Ghostland. Hero’s rescue is a recovery of a run-away slave. The Governor doesn’t just demand obedience, he demands familial love and ritualistic centrality. When he drives his sedan down the street it’s slow enough that a crowd of women can surround the black car, walking and clapping as they call out, “Governor,” over and over. Every element of his interaction with the public is ritualized. Clapping is mandatory.
And so this movie is certainly staking a position on a discourse of exploitation and subjectification and it is one that is situated in the historicity of American exploitation of Japan. However Governor’s exploitation extends beyond the construction and subjugation of a racial other and into misogyny – the women in Samurai Town are all his explicit property. They may be his prostitutes or they may be his “granddaughters” but this simply means those women who he’s taken the most perverse interest in. The Governor seems desperate to break the incest taboo but so incapable he has to create slave-relatives in order to fulfill this perverse desire.
The Governor also exploits the men around him in hierarchies of dominance. He forces Hero into the bomb suit and sets boundaries about what Hero can do to Bernice, his property. Her opinion on the matter is not considered by the Governor, just his right of ownership. He also keeps one of Yashujiro’s children as one of his grand-daughters and yet Yashujiro seems resigned to this exploitation. His position is infinitely precarious; the Governor takes no efforts at all to protect Yashujiro from the regular attempts on his life he experiences. But despite his precarity, Yashujiro seems at peace with the situation. Certainly he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about all the killing. It is never clear why he stands for any of it.
Hero does not return to rescue Bernice but to deliver her. Once in Samurai Town and in the face of her “Grandfather” Bernice suddenly knows how to fight with a sword and with a gun. She cuts a bloody path through the Governor’s bodyguards and guns him down. What Bernice does isn’t just revenge though; it’s a signal for a total desertion. One of the Governor’s other prisoners, Susie, helps Bernice and is wounded in the process. Bernice takes her aside and guides her to remind herself that she is not a prisoner. None of them are, the second they choose not to be. Before he dies, the other women the Governor exploited break into his house, steal all his shit, and call him a looser. The prisoners in Samurai Town and the Ghostland alike are free in the moment they choose to be.
Hero’s half-martyrdom allows him to be Bernice’s psychopomp. With him able to navigate the boundary between life and death he can help guide her to her life of liberation. He achieves his liberation from his guilt and grief and the revelation of that liberation helps him show others the path to freedom. But just as Hero could not force Bernice to speak, she had to find her own voice, so too Hero cannot give Bernice her revenge. He can just guide her to where she can take it for herself.
In short this inverted tragedy does what Kill Bill set out to do but, where Tarantino and his team failed, Sion Sono and his team succeeded. What is somewhat more ambiguous then is the way Hero’s fight with Yashujiro unfolds.
Dramatically, Yashujiro is far too much Chekov’s gun not to be fired. An entire movie is set up establishing he is a master swordsman, the greatest killer available to the Governor. It’s unclear why Yashujiro consents to serve this awful little pervert. Certainly he could easily dispatch the Governor. It’s not like the Sheriff or his men pose any threat. Hero, who is Yashujiro’s equal in combat, dispatches half the constabulary in the first thirty seconds of the melee. But where Bernice peels off to help Susie and then hunt down the Governor, Hero stays and fights with Yashujiro.
It’s a gorgeous fight. Well blocked, well lit, well performed. Tak Sakaguchi has such wonderful poise. Every movement is deliberate, every emotion controlled. It’s never really clear what Yashujiro wants except possibly to be left alone for just a minute. Perhaps he is not much more than a death drive – a man who seeks silence, killing and the possibility of oblivion. He dies beautifully and seems at peace with it.
There’s this vastness within Prisoners of the Ghostland. Samurai Town stands in for the way America exploits other countries, how it feels to be perceived via an orientalist gaze. It stands in for how men objectify the people around them, enforce hierarchies of dominance along lines of gender, race and status. It stands in for how a creeping fear for the other can create a situation of much greater actual disorder than that caused by the chaos you try to keep out and it stands in for a chance to have a samurai and a mad max clone enter a life or death battle against a posse of cowboys. Figures like Hero and Governor are given declarative names that assigns them a function in the world more than an identity. Hero is the agent of change. Governor the agent of control. When change brings revelation, control is swept away. Every character and every action unfolds and unfolds into an overabundance of meaning, an overabundance of desire, an overabundance of life. This film is the revitalization of the Dionysian in the form of the tragic but it is a tragedy that postulates that it isn’t enough for our hero to triumph, suffer and die. He must return reborn with new ecstatic energy to point in the direction of universal freedom.