Original release: April 2nd, 2006
Running time: 159 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Writer and director: Sion Sono
Cast: Kazue Fukiishi, Tsugumi, Yuriko Yoshitaka, Ken Mitsuishi
When I’m online, I don’t use phony names or misleading avatars. I use social media as a tool and I have a general rule for communicating and interacting with people in cyberspace: I don’t do or say anything I wouldn’t be willing to do or say in real life. Therefore the various sites hosting my name with some of my attributes must be fairly accurate representations of my true identity – I think. Sometimes though, I remember Morpheus in The Matrix (1999) referring to this as “residual self-image”, and wonder what the implications of this type of existence might be on a mass scale.
The ‘mental projections of our digital selves’ befriend, argue, spread rumours, start revolutions and even fall in love in a digital network.
Sion Sono’s follow-up to his thought provoking mystery-horror Suicide Club continues to explore the digital splitting of identity in Noriko’s Dinner Table from a personal perspective on the sinister death-cult phenomenon that we saw hitting Tokyo in the first film. The second film in what is meant to be a trilogy is an insightful addition to Suicide Club, finally showing us how adolescents are drawn into a world where they’re made to end their lives in that puzzlingly cheerful way we had witnessed at Tokyo’s Ueno railway station.
The film’s protagonist is its title character Noriko (Kazue Fukiishi), a small town girl who finds her life just as boring and frustrating as I found mine when I was growing up in my own small town back home. Noriko has aspirations and is very pro-active at school but nothing can make her feel like she isn’t wasting her life. She advocates unlimited access to computers; a battle she eventually wins and as a result, she can spend more time online. Noriko is developing a new identity and regularly visits a website where she calls herself ‘Mitsuko’. This is where she meets someone with the username ‘Ueno Station 54’ – which already has meaning to those who saw the bloody freak event in the opening of Suicide Club.
After clashing with her strict father Tetsuzo (Ken Mitsuishi) over her future, Noriko runs away from home and heads for Tokyo. Getting there, she gets in touch with her online friend Ueno Station 54, who turns out to be a young woman her age, Kumiko (Tsugumi). Kumiko introduces Noriko to her family but not long before she realises they’re paid actors working for an organisation called I.C. Corp. that offers services to clients who want to fulfil fantasies of living a happy family life.
Noriko is drawn into the world of role-play while her younger sister Yuka (Yuriko Yoshitaka) back home discovers the web-forum Noriko had used and already has her own digital identity ‘Yoko’. She runs away from home and finds her sister in Tokyo. By this time, however, they both taking their orders from I. C. Corp. under their digital names ‘Mitsuko’ and ‘Yoko’ while slowly beginning to lose the memories of their previous selves.
When writing about Suicide Club, I mentioned how difficult it is to recommend such a complex and visceral piece of work with mere written words, and it’s no different with Noriko’s Dinner Table. While the film has a clear structure and is divided into chapters, it’s one of the most non-linear works I can think of. It covers events before, during and after the time period in Suicide Club and although it answers some of the questions left from that film, it also raises new ones.
It’s incredibly visual, often venturing into the world of surrealism with fascinating insight into a modern world that we thought we already knew. When Noriko begins to meet people online, they’re shown to be distant silhouettes waving slowly at her; and when it’s revealed that Kumiko was found in a locker as an infant, it’s shown that her foetus may have been grown inside the locker (with the number 54…) from who knows what source – just to give a few examples of how Sion Sono tells the his story in the film.
Kazue Fukiishi is brilliant as Noriko/Mitsuko, I could relate to her and her adolescent frustration completely. When I arrived in London few years ago, I thought I was an adult but now I see my previous self as nearly as immature as Noriko arriving in Tokyo and I’m glad that I didn’t get mixed up with the wrong kind of people in the city. Who knows who I would be now if I did?
Tsugumi playing the role of Kumiko aka “Ueno Station 54” deserves a special mention for her acting in Noriko’s Dinner Table. It’s not clear how high she is within the hierarchy of the secret society in the film (or whether there is a hierarchy at all), but she’s certainly a key figure and Tsugumi plays the role of such magnitude with exceptional brilliance. She’s a beautiful young woman and yet manages to embody a character that frightened me with her complete lack of empathy that made me think she might not even be human.
I can only hope that Sono will complete the trilogy at some point in his filmmaking career. I wouldn’t expect to get all the answers from such visceral work, but I want to know more. Sono has completed the trilogy in novel format – which hasn’t been translated into English – but Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table most certainly warrant the final visual instalment for the story. It has a sense of pessimism of course that I don’t necessarily agree with, but it’s built on the truth of a modern and rapidly changing world that we live in and is an example of why filmmaking is an art form that still has the ability to surprise.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.