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54 high school girls throw themselves in front of a subway train. This appears to be only the beginning of a string of suicides around the country. Does the new all-girl group Desert have anything to do with it? Detective Kuroda tries to find the answer, which isn't as simple as one could hope. Written by
A suicide epidemic is sweeping Japan, even among hordes of teenaged girls who are making pacts with each other and offing themselves together. As Detective Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi) and crew investigate, they begin to suspect that maybe there's more to it than simple suicide.
In terms of sheer spectacle, surrealism and the impact of its scenes, Suicide Club is simply an amazing, groundbreaking film. As for "what it really means" (assuming we could even agree on how that could be determined), it is wide open for interpretation. Everyone is likely to have their own, and not a few will probably insist that their interpretation is the "right" one. I don't think mine is the "right" one--I don't even agree that there would be a "right" interpretation. But at any rate, my current take on the film is that it is an extremely twisted, broad-ranging exegesis on many facets of Japanese culture (and to an extent, it can be applied to other cultures, as well) that is issuing sharp criticism at the same time that it is showing reason for hope.
Suicide Club is a very dense film. By that I mean that it is packed full of meaning, symbolism, references and such. An analysis of each scene would be interesting and informative, but it would take far more than 1000 words (the space IMDb allows). At the same time that much of it may be intentionally cryptic, designed to open up the interpretational field, I think that much of the film is more transparent than its often David Lynch-like surrealism would suggest.
For example, in the late 20th/Early 21st Century, and especially in 2001, the year before Suicide Club was released, a big news story in Japan (and elsewhere, including BBC and CNN reports) was their relatively high suicide rate. 33,000 Japanese had killed themselves in 2000. The Japanese government's Ministry of Health developed a special program to combat the phenomenon. At the same time, there is a cultural history of suicide being "honorable" in Japan, at least in some contexts, yet contradictorily, suicide has also been looked at as strongly taboo by the Japanese, as something not even to be talked about. Japan is also a culture where a more cyclical view of time and nature is common. The major Japanese religions are Buddhism and Shinto. Many species of Buddhism accept reincarnation, and Shinto has a potential "life after death" as kami. In the midst of all of this, The Perfect Suicide Manual by Wataru Tsurumi was on Japanese bestseller lists for years in the late 1990s. So suicide is certainly a complex, pressing issue in Japan.
Writer/director Shion Sono offers his own thesis for the root of the problem, on the way providing a strong cultural critique of Japan (and by conceptual association, similar cultures in other industrialized nations). The criticism is perhaps surprisingly conservative in light of the graphic bloodiness of the film's images, but we could see Suicide Club's brutality as partially an embrace of reality versus sweeping the truth under the rug, and partially a Natural Born Killers (1994)-styled self-indictment of the media age's contributions to the problem.
A major theme is "disconnect". Many are wrapped up in their work, in gadgetry and other pursuits so that they lose their connections to their families and even themselves as authentic human beings. It is significant that Sono shows many suicide victims with interlocked hands, achieving a kind of emotional/spiritual/"kamic" unity before taking the plunge. Another corrupt attempt at achieving the missing connection is realized in long strands of human skin that are bound together and found near some suicide victims. Kuroda, who is investigating the epidemic, is relatively disconnected from his immediate family. They need help, but he only notices when it's too late.
Pop culture is initially portrayed as shallow or decadent. Near the beginning of the film, the young girl pop group has a big hit with a vacuous song about e-mailing or calling them. (Did I hear someone mention "Kim Possible" (2002)?) The name of the group is alternatively written in English (via posters, video and the subtitles) as "Dessert" (sweet and appealing, but bad for you if overindulged and consisting of "empty" nutrition), "Desert" (a seemingly barren wasteland, or an abandoning) or "Dessart" ("Dessert" + "Art"). Near the middle of the film, A Ziggy Stardust-styled glam-punk is shown depravedly indulging in sex and violence--an even more extreme version of Malcolm McDowell's Alexander de Large from A Clockwork Orange (1971). Later he becomes a self-styled Charles Mansion-ish celebrity, and he is blamed for having a connection to the suicides, in a typical media/pop culture scapegoating. At one point, the suicides evolve from their initial spirit of a unifying pact to a fad to be indiscriminately mimicked, whether one does it alone or not. It seems that in such an environment, even suicide is not immune from corruption.
The film only begins to reach a resolution once characters are lectured on their unwitting alienation/inauthenticity/dissociation from their core values. Children, either as perceptive innocents or wise reincarnates are the primary instruments of this reeducation. Even "Desert" contributes, as they sing a song about piecing together jigsaw puzzles. Later, when they decide to literally desert their pop stardom, they do so with a farewell song that's no longer shallow, but full of poignancy and hope. (By the way, all of the music in the film is excellent--I would love to see a CD soundtrack released.) This is a rare film that might be difficult to enjoy without a taste for this kind of deeper analysis, but there are plenty of visceral and surreal delights for horror fans. Those with weaker constitutions may have difficulty stomaching this material, but Suicide Club is an absolutely brilliant film--all of the technical and artistic aspects are exemplary. This is one of the best films of the 2000s.
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