Original release: April 6th, 2002
Running time: 99 minutes
Writer and director: Sion Sono
Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Yoko Kamon, Masatoshi Nagase, Akaji Maro, Saya Hagiwar
When on a mission to persuade people to watch great Japanese films, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club makes the act of persuasion a difficult task in spite of my passionate belief that the film is an absolute must-watch. Trying to give an idea about what to expect, I mention David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. These titles may or may not be appropriate for comparison, but it’s a good start in putting Sono’s disturbing vision of a society in decline into the domain of cult movies. There’s a riddle to be solved and a complex story to understand, but the rest, you need to feel. It’s visceral.
If someone twisted my arm to sum up Suicide Club as briefly as I can, I would say it’s a dark postmodernist commentary on how we connect to technology and disconnect from each other coupled with a deeply disturbing forecast of potential consequences that ventures into the domain of horror, mystery and maybe even the supernatural. All of this with a narrative focus on the tool that you’re plugged into at this very moment: the internet.
The freak event in the opening is the kind of urban tragedy that’s inevitably followed by media frenzy. We’ve seen it many times, but we’ve never seen it quite like this. A crowded train station in the Tokyo evening rush hour sees the arrival of dozens of schoolgirls and not long before we realise they’re up to something. 54 of them line up at the edge of the platform holding hands, and then blissfully jump together in front of the oncoming train.
Meanwhile, the hottest thing in town is the girl band called Dessert, with five girls around the age of 12 frequently performing their hit song “Mail Me” on TV and radio. Everyone loves them; even Detective Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi) – who’s in charge of investigating the mass suicide – as he calls together a family meeting to discuss something important with his wife and children but forgets all about it when “Mail Me” is playing on TV. Kuroda, however, thinks there’s something strange about the tragedy at the train station when it turns out that the girls were from different schools with no apparent connection to each other. He wants to investigate the case as a homicide with strong opposition from his superiors.
The mystery deepens when Kiyoko (Yoko Kamon), a hacker also known as ‘The Bat’ makes an anonymous call to Detective Kuroda to tell him she’s found a link between the suicides and a website. On the site, red and white circles appear representing boys and girls who commit suicide, but they show up before the events, making precise predictions about the sex and the number of victims. Kuroda later takes an even stranger call from a mysterious child who in spite of his age, speaks with authority giving the impression that he has insider knowledge of the strange events overtaking Tokyo. He asks Kuroda if he’s connected to himself.
Underlining Kuroda’s suspicion that behind the scenes the growing number of suicides are organised, bags are found with rolls of human skin stitched together from hundreds of different people. These are later proved to have been removed from the suicide victims prior to the suicides. By this time, the media has also produced its usual side effect of covering such events by making suicide the latest trend. This causes further confusion as the police can’t be sure who’s merely effected by the media trend and who’s a member of the mysterious suicide club.
Suicide Club ranks very highly not just amongst my favourite Japanese films, but my favourite films altogether. It taps into the zeitgeist with flawless precision where technology feels increasingly real clouding over a reality that’s never been so obscure. Is there a conflict between the two and the places of our identity within them? Consumerism, memes, conspiracies, the generational gap and an apocalyptic scenario that gets under your skin like never before all clicks into place in Sono’s piece.
The mystery is deep and Suicide Club requires multiple viewings that will inevitably lead to its prequel/sequel Noriko’s Dinner Table (2006) that covers more of what goes on behind the scenes. Sion Sono intends this story to become a trilogy with one more film to come – and I hope it will be; Suicide Club truly is a brilliant example of post-modern cinema.
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”.