There's a scene in Sion Sono's magnum opus Love Exposure, in which the emotionally abused and alienated protagonist, Yu, feeling fed up, screams and runs out into the night rain, still wearing his school uniform. He comes across some shady-looking teenagers trying to shake some free food out of a vending machine, and without hesitating, runs up and joins in their attack of the snack dispenser. They stop, then he stops, and they all look at each other for a second, and then resume, pushing over the vending machine, at which point a security guard calls out and they all run away together... And just like that these guys become Yu's new amazing friends who turn his whole life around.
It was at this moment that I fell in love with Love Exposure - I felt connected to Yu, to his feeling of suffocation in his home life, and then to see him suddenly drop his inhibitions, and change his life, in an instant, in the most ridiculous and audacious way imaginable... It got me excited, motivated; it made me feel pumped up. Well, if Love Exposure is, rightly, seen as the summation of every movie Sono had made up until Love Exposure, Hazard is the film in Sono's filmography that metamorphosed into that scene; in a way it's a complete film about Yu and his friends - that whole aspect of Love Exposure.
Hazard is a film about a college student, Shin, who feels suffocated by his dull life, trapped by his surroundings. He is sick to death of "sleepy but restless" Japan, and wants to go somewhere that's alive; when he happens to read about high crime rates in New York City, he is actually attracted by this idea of danger (of "Hazard"), and decides to leave everything behind and go. Once in New York, he sort of wanders aimlessly for a while, failing to fit in and managing only to get himself mugged, until one day he meets a couple charismatic Japanese guys his age in a convenience store. A minute later, these guys pull out some guns, rob the convenience store (of a few snacks only), and the three run away together. Shin is invited to live with these new best friends of his, and together, they make New York their "paradise".
I've often felt that Sono's films are not "realistic", but hyper-real; the scenarios are exaggerated and he works on an emotionally elevated level, but underlying that exaggeration is something deeply relatable, and through that exaggeration he conveys this in a much stronger way. So, taking this convenience store scene for example, well, it's the same as that scene in Love Exposure: seeing this character, who I relate to, have his life turned around in the most insane way... It's exciting; it pumps me up, and even inspires me to be more bold in my own life.
I don't take it literally - I'm not about to hold up a convenience store - but I never got the sense that the violence in Hazard was ever meant to be taken literally. In real life, I've never even seen a gun up close; there's nothing particularly relatable to me about violence or crime, yet these are completely ubiquitous, practically obligatory elements of entertaining cinema. I see the guns and violence in Hazard then as sort of a way of Sono subverting the traditional form of an urban crime film, to create a movie that has the same entertainment value, but beneath the surface is really a film about friendship, and a marginalized youth finding his place in the world.
The last time I watched Hazard now, was almost a year and a half ago. It is the one movie I took the time to watch while I was in Tokyo. My trip to Tokyo was in part inspired by Hazard, actually. Yes, Shin wanted to get away from "sleepy but restless" Japan, but I don't think the film is a commentary on any specific place or nationality - and I think the ending reinforces this - it's a universal film about a youth, desiring to experience life someplace else, and taking back out of this experience a revitalized outlook on life. For me, having never left the country, I was completely fed up with Canada, a country that's not "restless", but rather, just always asleep, and Tokyo was a place that had the same alluring sense of otherness to it, that maybe New York had for Shin.
Like Shin, I went alone. I wasn't interested in tourism - I wanted to know what it was like to actually live in Tokyo. I stayed for a month. I went out every day and every evening, to explore different parts of the city. Like Shin, I wandered aimlessly. Sometimes I would get lost and it would take me hours to find my way back to the nearest train station. I took language classes while I was there, and met some people through that, but mostly I remained on my own. I spent countless nights just hanging out around fairs and convenience stores, or around the smokers at Hachiko Square in Shibuya, watching the lights and the people. I felt lonely and discouraged one night and that's when I decided to watch Hazard. Feeling inspired again by the movie, I ran back out to the train station to continue exploring the city (though it's interesting how that "pumped up" feeling I leave a Sono film with can be hard to hold onto while waiting for a train with a handful of bored-looking people). When I returned that night, I met a Taiwanese guy staying in the same guesthouse as me, who recognized me from the language school, and (even though our only mutual language was extremely broken Japanese) I finally made a substantial friendship there.
A couple weeks after coming home from Japan, I returned to college, and, finally reunited with my old friends (after an 8-month co-op/break), we drank and ran through the snowy night streets, as the scene from Hazard of Shin, running through the street with Lee and Takeda flashed in my head. Well, that's what Hazard means to me. I absolutely love those characters. Lee is amazing - his total lack of inhibitions and sheer ecstasy of existence (Jai West's performance is unbelievable), the way he takes Shin under his arms... And Shin... Never have I felt more connected to a film character than him, the "boy who only wanted to fly". Sion Sono has said he would like to see his movies "have the power to change people's lives for the better". Well, I certainly think that power is in Hazard, for me, as it continues to inspire me to be a little less bashful around people, and to strive towards finding my own "paradise", like they make for each other in the film.