“Not a word about a Suicide Club… or kids will be dying all over Japan.” – one detective to another.
In the opening sequence of Sion Sono’s 2002 film Suicide Club (Japanese title – “Suicide Circle”), we may be convinced that we’re watching a documentary. Brief shots of people waiting for trains at Shinjuku station show us that this is daily life in Japan’s biggest city. But then the extraordinary happens. As an announcement warns everyone to stand clear of the yellow line, a group of over 50 schoolgirls step past it in unison and clasp hands. Enter a shot of the Express train zooming its way toward the station. Smiles on their faces, they count to three and leap to their deaths, blood spraying in places you’d think would be impossible.
The initial documentary feel is at that point pushed aside for gory theatrics, but Sono still seems to have something to say about Japanese society. He wants to hold a mirror to his Japanese viewers and have them question their unique culture. To do so, he writes a script that is quite solid throughout the first half.
Upon hearing the news of the mass suicide, a group of detectives centre their resolve on determining the cause. Matters are made worse when they hear of further mass suicides committed in the same vein. While suicide is not at all uncommon in Japan, it’s certainly curious when the victims are so young – and plenty. But one of the initial questions the police have to face is whether or not they are victims at all. Unless it’s some twisted cult behind this grisly string of tragedies, these girls are not victims of anything but their own tormented souls, and the case can be closed.
It is this kind of social discussion that we’re quickly introduced to, and Sono picks a great way to initiate it. Japanese culture is such that group harmony takes precedence over individual willpower. Though it’s unlikely that the groups of kids we see would willfully seek death while enraptured in the gleeful harmony of the moment, things like this have happened before. In 1995, a cult by the name of Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas on a Tokyo subway, killing 13. Young people, just like adults with a lack of affection in their lives, are easy prey for cult leaders; their minds are impressionable and they act according to any invocation of a higher power. This is explored when we see Tokyo’s youth offing themselves on a whim.
And the effect is jarring. There is a pointed juxtaposition of innocence and morbidness in the film that effectively takes us aback. Accordian music that could only be described as “happy” is decidely the soundtrack for these girls’ leap into the deathly abyss. A pop group of prepubescent girls is the latest trend taking the nation by storm, and their lyrics are appallingly nihilistic:
“As we go, we’ll forget the pain.”
To think that girls who should be looking forward to budding romance are singing about death is downright unsettling.
Added to the film’s psychologically disturbing backdrop is another dimension of creepiness, this time of the visual sort. Though the blood splatter scenes are laughably fake (and an easy way for Sono and crew to cut a portion of their expenditures), the hyperbole takes a toll on anyone without an iron stomach. There are possessed-looking children (a classic staple of suspense/horror films), a wispy Charles Manson type that belts out an anthem of death and stomps on animals in his “pleasure room,” and a circular chain of human flesh that the detectives must pull apart before they piece everything together.
Suicide Club does have its share of problems. After building the viewer’s suspense so well throughout the first and second acts, Sono gives up a hollow third. There are characters introduced throughout the film whose stories are not tied up, and the key protagonist is a flaky one at best.
While a morally perplexing and socially significant premise is offered, the script fails to explore it deep enough. In the end we have a film that opens debate and then disappears before any conclusions are reached, leaving the debaters intrigued but unsatisfied.
Of course, it’s never too late for a sequel. Till then, we’ll just have to continue the discussion on our own.