International Title: Noriko’s Dinner Table
Romaji: Noriko no Shokutaku
Japanese Title: 紀子の食卓
Release Date: 23rd September 2006 (Japan)
Running Time: 159 mins.
Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Sion Sono
Starring: Kazue Fukiishi, Yuriko Yoshitaka, Tsugumi, Ken Mitsuishi, Sanae Miyata, Shiro Namiki, Tamae Ando, Toru Tezuka, Yoko Mitsuya
Noriko’s Dinner Table is billed as the prequel to Suicide Circle and while it may be set in the same universe and explore the same ideas it drops gore for a more intimate and surreal story.
Noriko Shimabara (Fukiishi) is an inexperienced girl who lives a quiet and comfortable life with her journalist father Tetsuzo (Mitsuishi), her mother Taeko (Miyata), and her younger sister Yuka (Yoshitaka) in Toyokawa. Noriko craves excitement and wants to head to a university in Tokyo but her conservative father is set against it and wants Noriko to head to a local university. Noriko feels alienated from her parents but finds refuge in the internet on the site Haikyo.com, a place where teenagers from across Japan gather. Noriko grows especially fond of the website’s chief who goes under the username Ueno Station 54. Noriko runs away from home to Tokyo and meets Ueno Station 54 at Locker #54 in Ueno station. The mysterious Ueno Station 54 turns out to be a young woman named Kumiko (Tsugumi) who introduces Noriko to her business named I.C. Corp which offers clients actors who provide role-play services. Noriko falls into this shadowy world of role-playing. Six months later, 54 school girls act out their roles and jump in front of a train at Shinjuku station. Back in Toyokawa, Noriko’s sister Yuka has become a member of Haikyo and aims to track down Noriko. In order to do this she heads to Tokyo. This sets in motion Tetsuzo’s search for his daughters and his investigation into a cult named Suicide Club.
Noriko’s Dinner Table is based on a novel Sion Sono wrote in 2002 named Suicide Circle: The Complete Edition which wraps around the events of Suicide Circle, resolving questions and expanding on the story and themes.
Making links between the two films is interesting as we get an insight into who orchestrated the chaos of Suicide Circle and their motives. Whether you wanted an explanation of the site haikyo.com or a behind-the-scenes of some of the most audacious moments of the first film you will get it but as a follow-up to Suicide Circle’s gory events Noriko’s Dinner Table feels very different thanks to its restraint in dealing out black humour, horror and violence. They never overwhelm proceedings but inform them. Noriko’s Dinner Table shows that Sono has grown as a writer and director and he has thought carefully about what he wants to film.
I was ripe for growth
In essence this is a mystery/family drama about existential growth. Noriko’s Dinner Table leaves behind the spectacle of mass suicide and gives a more fulsome examination of the issues of alienation, the generation gap between parents and children, and the battle between individual authenticity and conformism.
Sono explored these issues in Suicide Circle but here, instead of the chaotic large-scale police investigation he uses a personal story of a family falling apart to comment on these issues. It is a much more patient and focussed film relying less on spectacle and more on intelligent writing and compelling acting to hook the viewer.
Noriko’s Dinner Table shows its literary origins as it is divided into five chapters, each of which is named after the character it follows. The film frequently uses narration and is convoluted at points. The story is non-linear and prone to skipping between fantasy and reality, past and present. The multiple perspectives of the characters lead to a war of personal narratives adding depth and nuance to Sono’s ideas which creates a fascinating labyrinth for viewers to explore.
This is a film that demands the viewer think about the actions of characters and their words. Do you side with Noriko, a person who is rejecting conventional values as she tries to connect to her authentic self or do you side with the father, a conformist, who is clearly not connected to his daughters but wants the best for them? Are their paths as simple as that? The arguments presented are all well thought out and there are no easy answers. This creates a film which requires multiple viewings and possibly even a discussion to get the most out of it but the writing is always engaging, the ideas intriguing, and the characters sympathetic all the way through to the film’s enigmatic conclusion and even now I am questioning my interpretation.
Are you connected to yourself? My interpretation which contains mild spoilers
With the restraint in spectacle and lack of gore the performances are brought to the fore and the characters are allowed depth, their arguments offering glimpses into the existential battle that Noriko wages and we are left to decide whether she wins or not.
Kazue Fukiishi is brilliant as Noriko. She is a character rebelling against her father as much as she is trying to shape her character and connect with herself. Noriko is endearing in her naivety and infuriating in her immaturity. Fukiishi is a beautiful actress who has a face when combined with those glasses that radiates a gawky innocence fitting for her character. I am conflicted as to whether Noriko actually achieves a real connection to herself. From the start she is misguided in her interpretation of life and it was easy to see that through haikyo.com she had been led to connect to the wrong people, especially Kumiko. The fact that she adopts the role of an actor and the use false masks that allow her to deny responsibility and avoid answering tough personal questions so readily is also worrying sign. That I was worried and infuriated by her shows that Fukiishi handles the complexity of Noriko well. She has a convincing sibling relationship with Yuriko Yoshitaka, a mix of concern, playfulness, gentle chiding, and desire for approval. It is interesting to see her as the opposite of Yuka who seems the wiser of the two sisters.
Yuriko Yoshitaka captures the balance of Yuka’s adolescent innocence and wilfulness. She looks and acts like a real teenage girl unlike Noriko who is ready to adopt false masks. She is wise to those around her and knows their characters better than they do and yet she still retains a compelling feeling vulnerability and bewilderment. I found her to be the strongest character in the film and felt that she, unlike Kumiko, Tetsuzo and Noriko, had actualised an authentic personality that would allow her to grow as signalled by the ending and her final words. She had understood what was to be gained and lost through her actions and transcended her circumstances through her natural curiosity and strength.
Ken Mitsuishi as the father Tetsuzo is convincing as a man forced to confront his own behaviour. His initial placid demeanour hides an authoritarian streak that father’s take for granted since it is rooted in the traditional social structure of the family unit. Although his stuffy cultural conformity and his complacency is clear from the start it gives way to an admirable determination to reset his relationship to Noriko and Yuka and he never loses our compassion and so it is tough to watch the humiliation of the father at the hands of his daughters but it is ultimately for his own good. Much like Tokyo Sonata the film ends with father opening up with the realisation that change is needed.
What about the person orchestrating this drama and the chaos of Suicide Circle, Kumiko?
Kumiko as played by Tsugumi is quietly menacing, scary in her intelligence and ruthlessness but also sympathetic as a woman with a tragic background who wants revenge on society by undermining social roles. It is her website, haikyo.com, which helped spark the suicide spree in Suicide Circle and this film expands on her mission to take revenge on society by shaping people’s characters for her own ends. She is a magnet who draws so many people suffering existential angst and she offers to remove the pain of choice by offering to take responsibility away from people. She sounds like she understands the anguish that freedom brings, “We all need reverse roles to figure out what each of us is” but her route it is ultimately flawed as it takes away an individual’s authenticity and leaves them as actors unable to direct their own lives. “No acting when you have no role.” But for all of her command and intelligence she seems lost. The fact that Kumiko keeps random stuff from other people and creates her own memories seems may seem like a sign of her independence but the lack of background has left her detached from her own feelings which is actually holding her back from becoming truly connected to herself and she admits “Sometimes I forget I’m Kumiko.”
Time’s up – End of Spoilers
Light on the blood and heavy on Sono’s favourite themes of alienation, identity, and existential angst, Noriko’s Dinner Table is challenging viewing. Direction and acting are excellent and it helps to deliver a thoughtful story which has the guts to defy a viewer’s expectations and challenges them to think about what is on screen which is what good films should do.