International Title: Suicide Club
Romaji: Jisatsu Sakuru
Japanese Title: 自殺サークル
Release Date: 23rd June 2002 (Japan)
Running Time: 94 mins.
Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Sion Sono
Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Akaji Maro, Masatoshi Nagase, Saya Hagiwara, Hideo Sako, Takashi Nomura, Kimiko Yo, Rolly
Although Sion Sono started making films back in 1987 it was 2002’s Suicide Circle which truly put him on the map with its mix of black humour, social observation, and an audacious opening in which a whole bunch of commuters at Shinjuku station get soaked in a whole lot of gore.
25th May, Shinjuku Station. The place is packed with commuters waiting to go home. Nobody takes any notice of the fifty-four smiling school girls who gather at edge of a platform as a train approaches until they link hands and jump in front of that train. This is the start of a wave of suicides that strikes Tokyo which coincides with the emergence of a J-Pop group named Dessert. The police are uncertain as to whether this is suicide or an accident but when a mysterious phone call from a hacker named ‘the Bat’ tips off Detective Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi) about a suspicious website (maru.ne.jp) that tracks the suicides before they actually happen the police begin to investigate.
Sono’s films regularly examine issues surrounding identity in modern Japan. These issues have long been a source of ideas since his earliest films which regularly focussed on outsiders. He usually explores these issues using genre frameworks like comedy (Love Exposure), crime (Cold Fish/Guilty of Romance), and melodrama (Himizu) and sometimes he combines genres, which makes his films wildly unpredictable. Suicide Circle can be counted as his horror picture as we get familiar genre trademarks amidst his exploration of identity and suicide.
Hey let’s all kill ourselves!
One can watch Suicide Circle and exult in the glorious black humour and horror since it features many absurd situations and grisly death scenes with copious amounts of gore and blood splashed around¹ but for Sono the real horror is what drives people to commit suicide and the existential crises that modern people face.
Around the time Suicide Circle was made the high suicide rate in Japan was major news² around the world with articles discussing how people would arrange group suicides over the internet. Reasons driving people to do such a thing included depression, the economic crisis, school exams, and social pressure. Through Suicide Circle Sono aims to address how this range of issues and modern society in general has created a generation of people willing to commit suicide.
This range of issues results in a film which can feel muddled but he insistently throws situations at us creating an avalanche of ideas to get his point across so stick with it and try and decipher what he is trying to say. Me? I think that his point is that cultural conformism, a generation gap, and technology has created an atomised society affected by great loneliness, a society where people are alienated from each other and that by trying to fit into a social role they lose their authenticity, their connection to their true feelings and the feelings of others. Instead people have replaced any form of connection and living consciously with shallow pop culture which allows people to stop taking responsibility for their actions and conform, just follow herd mentality and trends which allows people to ignore problems around them.
Everyone’s acting funny these days. We hope this song will cheer everyone up! SPOILER WARNING
Look carefully at how Sono captures the characters in the film and they seem unable to connect with each other. Salary-men look absolutely stressed, house-wives are zoned out, and students seem to be in a fugue state. People look alienated and very miserable despite being surrounded by others. They exist in drab urban environments, anonymous public spaces and dirty, dilapidated, abandoned buildings where grey and black are predominant colours and life has receded. Homes which should be a place of warmth and happiness are shadowy and grey places where the brightest lights emanate from screens showing Dessert in a glitzy concert. Although people may be miserable nobody really talks about their feelings and there are few kind words shared. Not even the death of fifty-four people seems to have much impact since the police try and write it off as an accident.
In the moments when people are together most look isolated as people act out their social roles, talk over, misinterpret, and ignore each other, barge into each other and generally exist in their own worlds. Ironically despite the promise of connection given by technology like the internet and mobile phones people are isolated by it, glued to their screens worshipping the sugary-sweet and addictive J-Pop from Dessert which may prove to be more than vacuous pop music.
When people do try and make a physical connection it is soon shaken off unless that human touch leads to death. The people committing suicide seem highly impressionable or depressed, either easily led to join their friends in the madness or tired of conforming to societal roles and pressures which force them to act in unnatural ways. The moments of mass suicide are moments when Sono seems to be satirising the desire to fit in like following pop trends like in one scene where one person determined to commit suicide pulls others, most of whom were joking, with them.
Detective Kuroda and his family are a perfect example of how social roles mask inner turmoil and block connections. Kuroda may be our island of sanity but his bosses want answers and he is under pressure to succeed as a detective. As a result being a detective is the only role he plays and he is totally focussed on his job which means that he can only pay superficial attention to those around him. His family may seem happy but there is a very believable generational divide at play as the kids are constantly attached to their computers and televisions while Kuroda and his wife are content to let their kids lead their own lives so they can lead theirs. When Kuroda tries to play the role of father and organise a family meeting to address the suicides it ends in disorder, everybody drawn to Dessert and their latest hit song “Mail Me”. His only extended interaction with his kids is when they alert him to the mystery of a new website named haikyo.com which claims to have answers but even that does not last because he, like other adults in the film, seem blind to the true nature of the content which their kids are viewing. This is a family disconnected from each other despite the smiles.
What is the trigger causing these people to commit suicide? Could Dessert, a pre-teen J-pop girl band be encouraging people to die? Do Dessert’s pop songs contain hidden messages?
Actually they seem to be trying to help the situation by using J-pop to smuggle in messages concerning the fact that people have lost their connection to themselves and the fact that need to re-establish it and face the struggles of life. Re-watching the film and paying attention to the song lyrics³ helped me realise that they were addressing the same themes as the film. The song “Mail Me” addresses our dependence on technology, “Puzzle” is about the difficulty of finding a place to fit in, and “Live As You Please…” is about living your life consciously and embracing the choices, easy and hard, that life brings even if one of the options is suicide. Their music is neither good nor evil but it opens up the fact that individuals need to take responsibility for every aspect of their life and face up to whatever troubles them. I suppose it is like going from listening to Morning Musume’s Love Revolution and then listening to Jean-Paul Satre in the form of cute Japanese girls telling you that you are free and have to deal with it regardless of the anguish of any circumstances. The people who commit suicide are those who have faced the message and taken the easy option of hitting a reset button while those who live have taken the hard option proving their inner-strength and re-connecting with themselves.
Well those are the connections I made in the film and I could be wrong and I missed things like Dessert’s motivations but the fact that I have chosen to write about it shows how fascinating I found the film.
What’s your connection to you? End of Spoilers
Casting Ryo Ishibashi as Detective Kuroda is a master-stroke. Fans and the Japanese audience may know that he was once a rock musician in the 1970’s with Alexander Ragtime Band he released albums named Bad News, and Trouble Chudoku. Since then he has shifted identities and become a respected actor. In a film so concerned with identity, authenticity, and the generation gap between young and old having former rock star Ryo Ishibashi as a middle-aged detective out of touch with youth culture fits in perfectly with the themes of the movie⁴ due to his changing persona. He is a charismatic and firm lead and watching the developments around him is truly unnerving.
He is given excellent support from the rest of the cast but the other performance that captures the imagination is Rolly as Genesis, a preening and prancing villain in sparkling clothes who uses a bowling alley as his pleasure room which turns out to be a torture chamber where he and his band play music with choruses like “Because the dead shine all night long.”
The soundtrack composed by Tomoki Hasegawa plays the other major role as the J-Pop group Dessert are essential to the plot. Whether you like J-Pop or not the music is a pure emotional ride. The pop confection Mail Me is an addictive sugary rush while Love Theme and Sore De Wa Minna San, Sayonara are absolutely heart breaking with their melancholy sound. This music is highly memorable (I speak from experience since I listened to these on repeat for a looong time⁵) and very moving in or out of context.
If I had to rank my favourite Sono films, Suicide Club would come second behind Cold Fish. Although the film has a degree of incoherency when displaying its ideas (something which puts a lot of people off – there is a tie-in manga which is a much simplified version telling the story from the perspective of one of the girls who jumped at Shinjuku Station) I love the fact that there is so much to think about. Its examination of the existential dissolution a person undergoes when they become part of society is delivered with startling clarity at many points and these moments are powerful. It also ends with one of Sono’s open and enigmatic endings which left me satisfied and yet eager for more. This would be addressed with Noriko’s Dinner Table.
¹ Overseen by Yoshihiro Nishimura who would go on to direct Tokyo Gore Police
³ Here are two of Desserts songs, Mail Me and Live as You Please
⁴ ARB up in 1990 around the time Ryo Ishibashi turned to full-time acting but it was reformed in 1998. For the most part Ryo Ishibashi has concentrated on acting. Rather interestingly the awesome anime Mawaru Penguindrum uses several of the band’s songs including Rock Over Japan and Grey Wednesday (one of my favourite end themes of last year). I have placed two videos below for comparison.
(edit: Music was removed from the Mawaru Penguindrum video so here’s a link)
⁵ Ironically the music that helped me focus while writing this was Joe Hisaishi’s OST for Sonatine. Truly gorgeous and a real antidote.