by Mel Valentin
Disturbing, unsettling, nightmarish, and opaque, "Suicide Club" (“Jisatsu saakuru” and also known as "Suicide Circle"), written and directed by Shion Sono, combines horror conventions, copious amounts of blood and gore, with (apparently) a social critique of a contemporary Japan awash in the stifling banalities of pop culture and mass consumerism. Unfortunately, Sono’s social critique may be too oblique, indirect, and ambiguous for Western audiences with a decidedly different set of expectations (i.e., for clarity of purpose and meaning). As the credits roll over another pop song by an insufferably cute pop group, questions will outnumber answers, and confusion will take care of the rest.Fans of what’s loosely called “Asian Extreme Cinema” (typified by Takashi Miike and his imitators), a subset of Asian films defined by an unflinching approach to violence and its hyper-realistic depiction on film, are likely to be disappointed. Nothing in Suicide Club matches the first set piece, a mass suicide by fifty schoolgirls. The schoolgirls, all seemingly normal (most smile), hold hands, chant “One, two, three…”and jump in front of a moving train. The remainder of the film leaves most of the violence off screen, showing us the effects of violence (e.g., bloodstained walls) or keeps the violence half-hidden (scenes of violence toward animals is implied through sound, as writhing animals are kept inside white linen sheets). As expected, however, Sono pulls out all the stops in the opening scene. Blood spray and limbs are everywhere, covering the train tracks and office workers alike. Friends, family, and, of course, the media are stunned by this unprecedented, inexplicable event.
"Difficult, disturbing, ultimately opaque stab at Japanese society."
Suicide Club then segues into “police procedural” territory, with the ostensible protagonist, Detective Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi), a middle-aged, taciturn professional with a wife and two kids, leading the investigation. A younger detective, Shibusawa (Masatoshi Nagase) and an older, hard-edged type, Murata (Akaji Maro) aid his investigation. Cleanup at the train station leads to the discovery of a bloodstained handbag. The bag contains a spiral, a wheel of human tissue, square pieces of human flesh cut and tied together to form a literal and symbolic chain, the recognition, perhaps, of the mass suicide pact. An anonymous caller with post-nasal drip calls Detective Kuroda, ostensibly to help the investigation. The caller speaks in riddles, asking Kuroda existential, metaphysical questions. Another caller, a young woman, links the Suicide Club with a web site.
What begins with a mass suicide, then turns into a standard police procedural, changes focus, first to a group that claims responsibility for the mass suicides (led by a blonde-haired, androgynous glam rocker type), then shifts a second time, switching protagonists from Detective Kuroda to Mitsuko (Saya Hagiwara), another schoolgirl. The same metaphysical questions are put to Mitsuko. Somehow, though, the trail leads from Kuroda to the glam rocker to Mitsuko, as well as a group of preternatural schoolchildren and an all-girl pop group, “Dessert.” Throw in a narrow, brightly lit torture room, complete with masked torturer and baby chicks (yes, you read that right), and Suicide Club limps toward an unsatisfying, nearly incomprehensible conclusion, one where conformity, mass consumerism, virus-like memes (the idea of mass suicide spreads across Tokyo, pulling in the more susceptible members of the general population), and an affinity for pop culture leads to alienation, violence, and death.Sono’s vision is bleak and uncompromising, but sadly, it’s also wildly simplistic as political or social commentary. Taken as black comedy or satire, however, "Suicide Club" does manage to score some blood-soaked points, aimed squarely at what Sono sees as the suffocating constraints inherent in Japanese society. On a side note, the subject matter alone makes an American remake highly improbable, if not impossible given our current socio-political climate.
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originally posted: 06/15/05 20:04:14