Sion Sono, “Suicide Club / Jisatsu Sakuru” (2002)
Famous for its controversial premise, full-on gory presentation and an arresting opening sequence of 54 school-girls jumping off a city train platform into the path of an oncoming train, “Suicide Club” is a meditation on the nature of modern Japanese society and its increasing dependence on technology as the connection among different generations of people that replaces all other social connections such as family and community. A wave of mass suicide hysteria hits Japan, baffling a group of detectives in Tokyo who try to piece together various incidents in which young high school students throw themselves off train platforms and the tops of buildings en masse. The detectives have little to go on apart from strange white bags, in all of which are found rolls of human skin sewn together. Some of the skin patches feature a butterfly tattoo. The detectives try to track down people with these patches and one of these persons is a young teenage girl Mitsuko, whom we first meet wallking home when all of a sudden her boyfriend Masa flies from the sky and crashes into her, clipping her ear before hitting the ground.
The detectives receive phone calls from mysterious people including a hacker called The Bat and an anonymous boy who warns one detective, Kuroda, of an upcoming suicide event. The police misinterpret the warning and stake out a train station in vain. Kuroda then goes home and discovers his entire family has committed suicide.
The Bat is captured by a group of glam rocker musicians led by guitarist Genesis who warbles a song while stomping on sacks of squirming puppies and mewling kittens. While Genesis and his friends perform, The Bat emails the police and informs them of her whereabouts. The detectives promptly arrest Genesis and the band, assuming they are the people inciting kids around Tokyo to dock themselves.
All while this is happening, a girl group called Dessert perform songs, video clips of which are spliced into the film at various points in ways that connect to the film’s events and insinuate that the singers are essential to the film’s narrative. Thus when Mitsuko goes into her dead boyfriend’s bedroom, she sees a poster of Dessert and figures out from the way the girls are holding up their hands and fingers a conspiracy of sorts. She investigates the conspiracy and finds herself being interrogated by a group of children in a bizarre sequence of surreal visuals and inventive film-camera panning. Mitsuko affirms her will to life in spite of the dreadful events occurring around her and the children order her butterfly tattoo to be removed.
The film seems critical of various aspects of Japanese society including conformity, the obsession with pop culture and youth fads, people’s lack of authenticity and the pervasive alienation within society. The police are shown as rather incompetent and pathetic in their pursuit of individuals they believe are encouraging the young people to kill themselves. Suicide as a cultural phenomenon in Japan is investigated on a superficial level: teenagers seem to treat it as a game. Death and its cavalier treatment by the Japanese are ever present in one form or another. Ultimately the film appears to suggest that the phenomenon of suicide points to a pervasive malaise afflicting modern Japan and that there can be no one cause people can point to: so many factors can drive people to take their own lives. The film offers no easy answers and characters must deal with the possibility of death and come to terms with life and living in individual ways.
Plot-holes abound: the film never makes clear who tattoos the butterfly tattoos on Mitsuko and others and why the tattooist should be doing so; and the sub-plot of The Bat and Genesis remains undeveloped and unrelated to the detectives’ work and Mitsuko’s own journey of self-discovery. The narrative is fragmented and the film lacks “proper” closure; within the film’s theme of alienation and disconnection, I suppose that the desultory nature of the action and its lack of resolution are appropriate. Characters remain undeveloped and one-dimensional, and the acting is competent, but again such a development has its logic within the film’s theme. Perhaps to survive in a society that emphasises conformity, hierarchy and ceaseless hard work for vague and contradictory ideals, people must divorce themselves from their true feelings and soul and behave like automata.
There are several sequences within the film that lack dialogue and “Suicide Club” features some very effective and quite noirish scenes, mixing them with handheld camera work that look very much like newsreels.
As might be expected, the film finds a lot of black humour in suicide, especially in one scene where a group of high school students on top of a building are discussing the incident of the 54 school-girls and laughing at their suicide. Before you know it, a bunch of boys comes along and makes suicide jokes and in no time at all the kids are lined up on the edge of the roof ready for the Great Leap Forward. Probably one of the funniest parts comes right at the end when Dessert sing their closing number urging people to connect with others more fully (and at the same time make money for their record label that exploits people’s alienation and desire to reach out and feel a part of society for profit).
In all, the film functions at a superficial level as a critique of Japanese society and an inquiry into what it means to be alive and to be fully human. It does become confusing and eccentric as it progresses and loose ends aren’t tied very well. I get the feeling that by the end of the film, director Sion Sono was no more enlightened about the phenomenon of suicide and the role/s it plays in Japanese culture than viewers are, though he did later make another film intended as a prequel to “Suicide Club” and wrote a novel that expounds more on the themes of “Suicide Club” and his intentions with that film.