Posted by Holly
Director: Sion Sono
On a quiet spring day, a large group of school girls approach the edge of the platform in a train station. These girls, 54 of them to be exact, then grasp hands before throwing themselves in front of the oncoming train. This is how we are introduced to the world Suicide Club presents, and make no mistake: it only gets darker from there.
When the name Sion Sono is mentioned, there is one film that immediately springs to most people’s minds. While he has directed a number of chilling and intriguing horror tales, Suicide Club is by far the one he seems to be the most well-known for. Suicide Club has been hailed as a classic of Japanese horror in the years since its release, and it’s hard to argue against the reasoning for this – it’s visceral, violent, but not without a haunting philosophy at its core.
Suicide Club begins with the aforementioned mass suicide, but this is just one event of many. Many other instances of suicide happen at around the same time, and the coinciding tragedies cause a panic of people presuming there is a mass suicide pact. Three detectives begin to investigate the case, tying together the acts of suicide with one very disconcerting detail: a briefcase that seems to be left behind at multiple scenes, each one containing a roll of human skin. Together, they begin to dig further into the origin of the skin, and the club itself, finding themselves getting pulled into a much darker and more murky case than they could imagine.
To start, this film has a lot going on. There’s a deceptive simplicity to its premise, because it allows for a lot of characters to have their own independent and interlocking stories, coming to various levels of resolution. There are many layers of symbolism, commentary, and character development that are difficult to put together into one coherent thought, and even choosing what to focus on is difficult. In brief, this movie is an experience with many facets.
Mostly, this film has been argued to be a social commentary on Japanese society, with the participants in the suicide club symbolizing the dangers of encouraged conformity. There do not seem to be individual motives, but rather a mass acceptance of the act, as though it were no different than any other trend. Beneath this, perhaps, lies another layer of criticism of pop culture as its own entity; the fact that the ‘villain’ in this is represented by a musical pop act (the band Dessert) seems to imply that people passively receive messages, without truly examining them. This film plays out the scenario of the age-old adage of “If everyone else jumped off of a bridge, would you do it too?” When the answer to that question is yes, dictated by cultural pressure, only carnage may follow. He shows us, then, a society that has the potential to implode upon itself when nudged only lightly towards self-destruction.
Another interesting element of this film, however, is its parallels to another famous piece of folklore; this story has very strong ties to the tale of the Pied Piper. A tale in which an entire town’s children are lured away, presumably to their deaths, by the musical call of a stranger. Indeed, it is a musical call that beckons the enchanted characters in this film, and pulls them away from their otherwise normal lives. In an interesting twist, many of the characters we see lurking behind the facade of Dessert are children themselves, who are instead part of the lure of death, rather than purely the victims of it. There is room, even, for argument that there are extensions in some of our characters of the children who are left behind by the Piper: one lame, one deaf, and one blind.
One character who should have closer examination is Genesis, whose appearance, while brief, seems to encompass parts of the pop culture critique that is being expressed in the film. His desperation to take the fall for the suicide club’s activities show that he’s merely caught up in the sensationalism of the situation and craves the limelight; he is a byproduct of toxic pop culture phenomenon. There’s no question that his motives are not the same as the suicide club from the get go; Genesis is at his core a simple sadist, with no depth in his reasoning. The scenes depicted with him performing a garish pop song while a woman is raped in the background, and then proceeding to kill an animal, are a stark contrast to the quiet and thoughtful scenes at the Dessert concert. They are both disturbing, but for very different reasons.
Mitsuko is a fascinating character to look at in the context of this story. When we are first introduced to her, she is walking down the street and struck by the falling body of her boyfriend, who has thrown himself from the roof. While he is dying, he suggests that she should join him. Rather than despair, or even show sadness about what has happened, she angrily rebuffs him in his choice to die, walking away from his death with a strange disconnect. Her vehement rejection of death is apparent from this introduction, and makes her stand out immediately. It is no surprise, then, that she becomes one of the children that is unable (or perhaps unwilling) to follow the Piper into the night, saved by her individuality.
A recurring question in this film, that is stated by many of its characters, remains: “are you connected to yourself?” What is meant by this question is exponded on a few times, but never truly clarified. The core of the suicide club itself seems to believe that connection to yourself is akin to being comfortable with death, with letting go of oneself and venturing into the void; if you are connected to yourself, there is nothing to fear. But with Mitsuko’s story, we are given opportunity to believe that this is not necessarily true; Mitsuko insists that she is connected to herself, but still allows her skin to be taken, and during the final scene, approaches the train tracks with what feels like a doomed certainty. When she boards the train, instead of throwing herself beneath it, is this a way of showing a victory for individualism, or that she isn’t as connected to herself as she’d thought?
The film is scary in a couple of ways: neither one of them are the kind that are going to have you looking over your shoulder, or afraid to turn the lights off. One may, however, be the kind of fear that keeps you up at night, wondering about the choices that we make, the identities we give ourselves, and who is responsible for shaping them. How susceptible are we to influence of this magnitude? The violence is, of course, one of the main reasons this film is so beloved, and it does not disappoint. I do have to question the need to include the woman’s rape, as Genesis can clearly be interpreted as a sadist without it. There are moments when low budget and/or dated effects make themselves known, but it’s hard to imagine you won’t be cringing anyway.
Such as in the tale of the Pied Piper, the story does not end of a note of satisfaction. After a brief but significant culling of the population, those that remain are left mournful and confused, without answers to their many questions. This is part of the power of Suicide Club. There is no moral victory to be found here, no heroes, just the emptiness of unnecessary tragedy. And while I think that this film does not match its successor, Noriko’s Dinner Table, in sheer depth, there is no denying that Suicide Club forces its viewer to ask oneself some difficult questions. Are you connected to yourself? And ultimately, what does that truly mean?
Rating: 4 out of 5. Not as strong as Noriko’s Dinner Table, but a fantastic philosophical horror piece, with some gore to boot.
Scariness level: This is scary on a much more psychological level, based on the idea of cults and the ability for people to be so easily manipulated.
Violence level: This is where the film truly shines. There are some creative deaths here, I’ll give you that. I’ll never cut vegetables the same way again. Lots of suicide, there is rape, there is animal death. Be warned.
Bechdel test: This has its moments, but as much of substance as I would like. Kiyoko has a few passing scenes.
Mako Mori test: Mitsuko has her own arc, though it is spurred forward by her boyfriend’s death. She does seem to be the audience connection, and proves to be a strong character. Kiyoko has a budding character arc that ends abruptly.