After a long delay, Guilty of Romance and Himizu are finally having their debut theatrical runs in the U.S. The pair signal the end of a self-described “middle period” of Sion Sono’s career, and mark a transition for the director—after a slight detour into post-3/11 melodrama with the well-acted but otherwise lukewarm The Land of Hope (12)—into bigger-budget studio projects. These include the ebullient yakuza action-comedy Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (13; to be released later this year by Drafthouse Films) and the forthcoming rap musical Tokyo Tribe, by early accounts Sono’s biggest film yet.

Picking up on themes introduced in his 2010 serial-killer / horror film Cold Fish (produced under Nikkatsu Studio’s now-defunct genre banner Sushi Typhoon), Sono’s Guilty Of Romance (11) has been described by many as a more female-centered approach to similar material and, like most of Sono’s films, has also been subject to accusations of misogyny. As in Cold Fish, a shy and weak protagonist is ushered into a dark world of murder, sex, and obsession by a knowing, dominant figure who leads two very different lives. In this case, the protagonist is Izumi Kikuchi (former swimsuit model Megumi Kagurazaka, now Mrs. Sono), a quiet and dutiful housewife married to the famous but emotionally distant novelist Yukio (genre fixture Kanji Tsuda). Bereft of any ambition beyond making sure her husband’s slippers are perfectly positioned when he arrives home every night, Izumi has lived her life in quiet acceptance of her passion-free and sexless marriage, feeling that she’s unworthy of her brilliant, higher-class husband and unwilling to interrupt his creative process with her own needs. But with her 30th birthday on the horizon and an unfamiliar feeling of restlessness rising within her, Izumi begins to keep a journal, and, with Yukio’s blessing, she takes a day job at a grocery store, handing out sausage samples to indifferent customers.

That is, until the day she’s approached by a well-dressed woman who flatteringly invites her to try her hand at “specialty modeling,” promising to help Izumi overcome her shyness and step out of her husband’s shadow while making some money of her own. This all goes downhill on their first appointment, however, as Izumi is manipulated first into nude photos and then into a pornographic video shoot. But once past the initial embarrassment and shame, Izumi begins to feel a fresh sense of liberation and self-satisfaction. (In one of the film’s best scenes, she stands nude in front of a mirror and admires her own perfect body, repeating her grocery-store pitch of “would you like to try some?” with increasing confidence and excitement; it’s difficult to imagine any other Japanese actress playing this scene as well as Kagurazaka does.) Thus begins her trip down a dark rabbit hole, as her erotic adventures expand to include liaisons outside of the modeling gigs, which echo the plotline of one of Yukio’s romance novels. In a similarly outlandish but appropriate fashion, her sexual experimentation with other men also brings her closer to her husband.

Izumi’s rediscovery of her womanhood is depicted by Sono in contrast to a wraparound story about a detective, Yoshida (action star Miki Mizuno), investigating a grisly murder and dismemberment case in the love-hotel district of Maruyama-cho. Midway through the film, just as Izumi seems to have hit bottom (she later learns there’s still some way to go), Sono also introduces a third female character, university literature professor Mitsuko Ozawa (the astonishing Makoto Togashi, primarily a stage actress in Japan), who becomes Izumi’s Virgil on her tour of the red-light district, as well as a guide into the darkest recesses of Izumi’s own soul. Meeting Izumi after she’s been subjected to a particularly humiliating sexual escapade in a love hotel with a magician-like stranger, Mitsuko takes Izumi under her wing as a street hooker, an avocation undertaken by Mitsuko in seeming rebellion against her blueblood mother and her constrained but respectable lifestyle. She soon becomes a kind of spiritual mentor to the less experienced woman, teaching Izumi only to have sex for love or for money, and that the act in absence of either is a waste of her fine body and independent spirit.

Izumi and Mitsuko’s stories also begin to converge and Sono plumbs the darkest depths of human sexuality and obsession while subjecting his protagonists to increasing levels of degradation and self-sacrifice. And as he approaches the point at which the murder scene seen at the film's beginning will find its relevance, Sono spares none of his characters from the knife, making those charges of misogyny a bit meaningless, or at least incomplete in terms of encompassing Sono’s disgust with humanity in general. The men in the film fare no better than the women, coming off either as monsters or cuckolds, and the female protagonists clearly hold all the power in their relationships, inasmuch as anyone in this world holds any power over their own carnal needs. Everyone is deceptive, preaches Sono, both to themselves and to others, and will manipulate both friends and lovers to satisfy personal desires or whims. Mitsuko’s family background is the most monstrous of all, and a scene in which she takes Izumi to visit her mother in their family mansion has a kind of lunatic hilarity that harkens back to earlier Sono films like Strange Circus (05) or Suicide Club (01). Even a seemingly “normal” character like investigating detective Yoshida is painted in ambiguous shades, particularly in the extended Japanese-market version of the film, which runs 32 minutes longer than the international cut released in the U.S.

In this longer version, Yoshida’s character is expanded, and it turns out she lives a life as duplicitous as that of Izumi or Mitsuko. Instead of a generic cop, she is yet another damaged cipher of a woman, conducting a steamy affair with an unidentified, dominant man, in addition to cheating with others. Also expanded is Mitsuko and Izumi’s relationship, including several scenes that show that it wasn’t just Mitsuko’s open-minded views on sexuality that attracted Izumi, but also her intellectual environment (a particular poem takes on extra significance as Izumi’s personal story develops). The ending of the film is also affected by the cuts, and the original version ties Yoshida’s own longing for something more with Izumi’s in a way that’s both poetic and mundane.

At the same time that Sono’s long version of Guilty of Romance was making the rounds on the festival circuit, his subsequent feature—his biggest-budgeted production up until then—made a splash at the Venice Film Festival, where its two young leads shared a special award. While Himizu (11) shares some spiritual kinship with Guilty of Romance and other Sono films (dark self-realization, dysfunctional and murderous families, a fascination with literature as an escape from one’s own private hell), it’s also a major turning point for Sono in his career as a filmmaker. Not only is it his only work released to date that wasn’t written as an original story (Sono adapted and expanded a popular manga of the same title by Minoru Furuya), but it shows a hopeful optimism missing from the majority of his other films, even if it comes served with generous helpings of bitterness, irony, and sobering realism.

Sono’s screenplay adaptation for Himizu was completed just before the disasters of 3/11 occurred, and he quickly re-wrote the film to incorporate a location shoot in Fukushima prefecture, making the earthquake and tsunami background plot elements within the film. Turnaround on the film was so fast, in fact, that it became the first major movie from Japan to incorporate the events of 3/11 into its story. The setting is simultaneously breathtaking and heartbreaking, and almost unbelievable merely three years later. Fukushima post-3/11 was a wasted landscape of destroyed and abandoned buildings that went on for miles and miles, and in Sono’s hands, it becomes a perfect symbol for his characters’ anguished lives. The stark visuals, in combination with extensive use of Mozart’s Requiem on the soundtrack, creates a mood imbued with power and meaning even before the first lines of dialogue are spoken.

As in Guilty of Romance, a major character begins the film with a narrating inner monologue—in this case, that of Keiko Chazawa (Fumi Nikaido), a middle-school girl who amicably stalks sullen classmate Sumida (Shota Sometani). Sumida and his poor family run a boat rental shack near a depressing lake in which sits a decaying and isolated wooden shack (a fitting metaphor for multiple characters in the film). In school, his mantra is “Ordinary is best!” in opposition to his teacher exhorting students to “Go for it!” in post-disaster Japan. Sumida just wants a normal life, without any ambition beyond middle-class survival; Keiko is fascinated by this and decorates her bedroom with Sumida’s statements, treating him as her own personal hero. Keiko’s own family life, while more comfortable financially, turns out to be at least as dangerous and emotionally disastrous as Sumida’s.

In lieu of his missing family, Sumida lives surrounded by a colorful clan of vagabonds, populated with familiar character actors from Sono’s Cold Fish and Guilty of Romance, and seemingly inspired more by European Theater of the Absurd than the original manga. Despite his encouraging and friendly surrogate family, both Sumida and Keiko live in their own private hells, discarded by their parents and with little to hope for in the future. Sumida’s undirected anger and his interaction with a yakuza boss who takes a shine to him (Denden, the villain from Cold Fish, here decked out in full gangsta rap regalia) drive the story through criminal escapades and two murder-and-body-disposal scenes, and finally, unbelievably, to one of the most upbeat and sentimental conclusions in Sono’s filmography—albeit tinged with sadness and a bittersweet feeling of loss. Sono’s immediate follow-up, the original drama The Land of Hope (also shot around Fukushima), sets its story more directly within the post-3/11 landscape, as its characters struggle to deal with radiation and government intervention, yet doesn’t manage nearly as much of the drama or poignancy of the more surreal and fanciful Himizu.

Both Guilty of Romance and Himizu pity their protagonists as they fight against the world in an effort to become more human, and dovetail nicely together as the final entries in an angry and contrarian period of Sono’s filmmaking. Since these two films, Sono’s work has turned back once again to melodramatic and/or escapist exercises in mixing genres and experimentation. Given his success with the latter and his increasing budgets, it’s uncertain whether his sharp focus on human emotions will ever again be so intense.