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Suicide Club (aka Suicide Circle, 2002)

Sono Shion


94 min, color, Japanese (English subtitles)

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

This one made the international film festival circuit and received so much notoriety that finally even Blockbuster felt compelled to offer it to customers (not after cutting out most of the gore). The story is complicated. Some of it has to do with the director himself, who seems to have a definite penchant for eccentricity, elliptical expression, and just plain weirdness. Some of it has to do with the rumored two sequels to follow that may explain everything left unanswered in this one (that is, almost all of it). Some of it has to do with the complexity of the subject matter that Sono so audaciously tackles. Thus, this review will be based on the (incomplete) understanding of the film.

On the platform Dessart with ironically subversive song

To make exposition a bit easier to follow, here's a brief synopsis of the film. It opens with 54 high school girls chatting on a train platform. They are not a homogenous group where everyone knows each other but rather the usual eclectic mix of small groups of friends from various places. Yet, when the train approaches they suddenly line up on the platform, hold hands, and then chanting "One, two..." they leap on "three" in front of the speeding machine and are mowed into pieces, with geysers of blood splashing bystanders and windows. A river of blood flows down the platform around a small white sports bag that has mysteriously appeared there.

The weird website count The white sports bag

Dismissed at first as suicides, the cases begin to mount in numbers until the police finally wise up to the idea that there's someone behind all of this. But who? And why? And how? Detective Murata is happily married, with two young children, and is part of the investigation. He receives strange phone calls from a young boy but is unable to make good use of them, totally misunderstanding their purpose. Komori is a pretty young girl whose boyfriend kills himself by jumping off a building and accidentally nearly killing her by landing on top as she is passing by. She has a weird tattoo on her right shoulder. But so do many. But then the eerie content of the white sports bag turns out to be a roll of pieces of human skin, neatly stitched together, with some pieces displaying similar tattoos. Is she connected? Is she next in line? One of the detectives falls for her, but she seems thoroughly disconnected to respond.

Suicide Circle (of human skin) Unable to compete with T.V.

But when Komori visits her boyfriend's apartment, she finds that he has been an avid fan of a teenage girl singing band Dessart who are all over the media with their innocent JPop songs, including the hit "Mail Me." There, Komori uncovers a hidden message in the band's poster spelling the word "suicide." And next, she receives the phone call herself.

On the school roof... ...and the school yard

Without going into details, let me just say that the film does not answer who really is behind the suicides or really why. But here's some of my musings on the subject. First, we have to understand that the film actually depicts real life events. There is a rash of suicide pacts all over Japan with people visiting websites and then arranging to meet and kill themselves. This is not on the scale in the film, of course, but has had authorities quite troubled for a while. I also seem to recall some controversy here in the U.S. about websites who describe painless ways of committing suicide.

The boyfriend dies for no apparent reason Detective Shibusawa

The film is a social commentary despite its bizarre narrative structure and tons of gore (which, by the way are not as over the top as some have said---the film simply follow a long Japanese tradition in this respect and is nothing out of the ordinary). But what is the commentary? Doubtless, the most obvious one is the sense of alienation gripping the young today. All this technology supposedly for communication has had the exact opposite effect. It is taking people apart, letting them retreat into the darkness of their rooms, and "communicate" with faceless strangers through a glimmering monitor. Even the cell phones... how many times have you seen a group of friends walking "together" with each of them talking on the cell phone to someone else? Many, many times. It's a sort of escape where the personal touch is eliminated. Where people were forced to deal with others, today this connection is removed. People are both free and alone, perhaps the two necessarily go together?

A rash of group suicides While Dessart are playing on T.V.

So who will step into this vast gap between human beings created by the stupendous technological advances? Ah, but we all know who, don't we? The exuberant, fake, alluring, and dangerous world of the media, which bombards us with messages creating wants where none existed before and purporting to satisfy inner desires when it is unable to do so. Parents, whose have always had the responsibility of educating their children, have all but abandoned it to television and the internet. The film has one especially poignant scene where the father tries to talk to his children about the suicides that have begun worrying him, but his voice is drowned by Dessart singing on T.V. He cannot divert his children's attention and where in earlier times this would have caused him to shut off the T.V., he meekly accepts it as a fact, laughs about it, and then asks his children to educate him about the band.

In the kitchen Detective Kuroda returns home

That the messages are not evil despite leading to suicide is also implied in the film. Dessart sings about finding a place to fit in this world. There's a place for all of us, they say. But in fact this is the irony: the way to fit is only through reconnecting with oneself. For people, who are social animals, this should mean reconnecting with others. But they don't and they are therefore doomed. When the boy on the phone asks Kuroda whether he is connected with himself, his voice is then replaced by a girl who asks why Kuroda could not feel the others' pain as he would feel his own. That is the essence of reconnecting with one's own self: re-establishing proper links with others. But he was detached even from his own family, he did not really feel even their agony. When his daughter shows up drenched in blood behind him, he does not detect the problem until he sees it with his eyes, by which time it is too late. Or the family where the mother slices herself cooking in the kitchen while the rest are sitting in the living room.

Kuroda faces his mistakes Dessart with another subversive song

Worse, reconnecting with one's self through re-establishing contact with others also requires that others make a similar effort. That is, it is even more difficult because it is not sufficient for one to take the step forward, there must be someone there to take a similar step too. Perhaps the young detective who is portrayed as especially sensitive will be able to help Komori who by the end of the film is also doomed to die. She does not know it yet, but her attempt to reconnect with her dead boyfriend (symbolized by her lying in the chalk outline of his body on the pavement) will be fruitless because there can be no response. Unless someone intervenes in time, she will be gone. The detective abandons his first half-hearted attempt, but there is hope for another.

Trying to reconnect... ...but it's not working

In a society where most people are too busy with themselves to the extent that they have lost touch with others, thereby losing touch with themselves as well, suicide is one rational way out of it. It is its finality that helps (for a brief moment) the participants to feel human, to be really together by joining in death. Even for people who kill themselves in isolation, there is the sense of belonging to a wider suicide circle. Characteristically, none of them make any attempt to communicate with the outside world, none of them really make an effort to let someone save them because they reject what this salvation would imply: a return to the anonymity of a world overloaded by communications.

The message discovered The yellow chicken scene

The film also has a gratuitous subplot that is much more pedestrian: the craving for the 15 minutes of fame. A gang of young punks led by a Cobain-lookalike by the name of Genesis tries to take credit for masterminding the suicides. The kidnap girls, torture them, rape them, and kill them along with a lot of small furry animals. Genesis finally surrenders to the police amidst cries that he is the Charles Manson of the information age. This part was unnecessary and too blatant, although it does provide a false lead in the middle of the film, perhaps improving its fare as a thriller.

Still ironically disconnected Which way will she go?

In terms of visuals, the film is nothing special. The TLA Releasing DVD has the unrated version (although it's still listed as 94 minutes on the cover while IMDB claims it's 99). It is widescreen without anamorphic enhancement and the English subtitles are non-removable. The video is quite murky and soft, which gives the film a look of a cheap production. I don't know whether this is just because TLA did a poor job of mastering it.

But the direction is not inspiring to begin with. Barring several pretty decent moments (e.g. the scenes at the hospital with the nurses), the pace sags in many places and it does not help that for the most of the film the audience probably is scratching its collective head in bewilderment. It is also quite unclear why so many tout this film as groundbreaking (after all, Battle Royale has already shown the way and is also the better executed film to boot). Still, I will be looking for the sequels when and if they come.

December 14, 2003