Sion Sono‘s Suicide Club (2002) is the grisly story of a rash of suicide’s across Tokyo. The film begins with 54 schoolgirls jumping into the path of an oncoming train. The excessive blood splatter that results either turns the viewer away, or steels their resolve to continue watching this gruesome film. Of the current Japanese filmmakers working in the genre, Sono certainly understands how to direct a gripping horror film. Viewers are made complicit in watching Sono’s scenes unfold, for he employs techniques that add an element of pleasure to watching something so horrific. Indeed, far from being disconnected from each other, these girls are youthful, attractive and they act in solidarity. What’s more, they appear to be happy executing this act together. This feeling is supported by the unusual Irish-sounding jig that plays in the background. This is an unnatural union of both sound and imagery; a paradox of attraction and repulsion that makes Suicide Club memorable and impossible to erase from one’s mind.
In Collette Balmain’s Introduction to Japanese Horror Film, Balmain makes the claim that Suicide Club “takes a negative view of Japan’s media-saturated culture.” This is evident throughout many parts of the film. For starters, the seemingly innocuous pop-group Dessart seem to have a mysterious connection to the spate of suicides. While this is not evident in the beginning of the film, their song “Mail Me” includes a conspicuous lyric that ties into the film’s content: “I need to hear from you right now or I’ll die.” This song fetishizes the concept of a media-culture replete with communications technology, and the music video is seen several times throughout the film. This gives the viewer a sense of how popular culture has permeated Japanese society.
Bailman cites an author who says that Japan has modernized to such an extent that they have the most “developed telecommunication infrastructures in the world.” In fact, Internet and mobile phones have become so pervasive in Japan that a sub-culture, known as keitai has emerged. This is really no different from our smart-phone craze in America. But Bailman’s thesis, in regards to Suicide Club, is that Internet and mobile technologies “wall in individuals, isolating them and killing them;” metaphorically at least. For example, Japan’s elders who have upheld values of family tradition, folklore, and Shinto beliefs before the Allied Occupation have mostly died off now. The newer generations, unaware of their rich cultural heritage, are immersed in self-constructed keitai worlds; inseparable from their digital fetishes. This creates dysfunction at the heart of Japan’s nuclear family, killing the society and culture.
Swept up by the investigation – which is basically an extreme expression of keitai – detective Kuroda loses the connection with his family due to their immersion with Internet and mobile technology, as well as his absence from them as a modern father. At the dinner table scene, the family strains to have a serious discussion, but the television distracts them with Dessart’s “Mail Me.” This demonstrates the invasion of media into everyday life, but it also highlights the increasing disconnection between people in contemporary Japan. This disconnection is the result of alienation, emptiness and isolation felt by citizens in an urban society, which is “dominated by the image, commodity fetishization and economic instability.” Indeed, modernization and technology cause the characters to die away from each other.
On the surface, what viewers see in Suicide Club are victims of a bizarre murder-suicide cult. However, we are told several times over throughout the film that there is no suicide club. We hear this from the strange little boy on the opposite end of the phone. He remains faceless, and the fact that it is a child’s voice adds an element of the bizarre. We could say that this boy is the mouthpiece of a more sinister individual, but having so many children involved in this horror at the end of the film seems unimaginable and unreal. This, I believe, allows Sono the ability to express thematic content that lies deeper than the blood that drenches the screen. He uses children to convey the message of social disconnection, because their words somehow carry more weight in a film about death. So when Mitsuko declares at the end of the film that she is connected to herself, the children applaud her because she has declared that she is not complicit in this society that murders each other through selfishness, ignorance, and greed.
My opinion is that the abstract nature of keitei makes it impossible for individuals to forge meaningful relationships. It causes individuals to unlearn positive social behaviors, becoming instead something else entirely; individuals who are isolated, mad, and suicidal. Indeed, extreme narcissism and a lack of empathy are behaviors that would result from the total disavowal of a communal system of obligation and pre-modern human bonds. In a world of media-saturated spaces (in which the real has been replaced by the hyper-real), if left to permanently alter the landscape of human interaction, there is but one thing that keitei cannot abstract, and that is the reality of death. Death finally reestablishes a connection among those who feel its stab. A film like Suicide Club, taking graphic depictions of death and suicide as its primary mode of expression, probably does itself a disservice when trying to effect a successful cultural critique on modernization. But the film does draw from sources that are undeniable; such as climbing suicide rates in Japan. However, a more direct approach – that is – one less metaphorical, would probably serve as a better critique.
(written for ENG 260 at Oakland University on 2/14/13 – Valentine’s Day)