J-Cin Sundays: Suicide Club

Title: Suicide Club (自殺サークル, literally, “Suicide Circle”)
Director: Sion Sono
Year: 2002
Notes: This review contains spoilers. And it’s a cult cinema comedy-horror film by an avant-garde street poet, so assume all videos are disturbing – except for the Rebecca Black video. Or, maybe that one too.

TLDR: A J-Pop band made of 12-year-old girls deliberately inspire a secret suicide cult through their lyrics and album art.

J-Pop Suicides
Some J-Pop could spur anyone to jump in front of a speeding train. But in Suicide Club, it’s the premise of an entire film.

Dessert, a band of five 12-year-old girls in pajamas, constantly dance around on TV singing a song about e-mail. Their first single, and it’s a setup. Because if you do e-mail them, you’ll be put through to a secret viral marketing campaign for suicide.

This film has plenty of gory death scenes; the notorious opening sequence shows 54 girls in school uniforms jumping in front of a train and unleashing an explosive, splatter-core blood bath on the bystanders.

The Cult of Irony
On the surface, Suicide Club is a horror movie tapping into the silliest fears of particularly sheltered grandparents. Not only is pop music part of the problem, so is the Internet!

But it’s also, in some ways, a film about irony. It folds neatly into a theory I’ve been grappling with ever since the spread of Rebecca Black’s “Friday.”

“Friday” swept the Internet in a feeding frenzy of irony and propelled the song into millions of views and downloads, which translated into hundreds of thousands of dollars for Ms. Black (which was donated to the Japanese Red Cross).

In Suicide Club, after 54 girls have jumped in front of a train, we meet a random clique of high school kids in another city. They start making jokes about forming their own suicide club.

“We’ll all kill ourselves, but first we’ll go out in a blazing glory of hedonism!” Nah, the girls aren’t into that. “So what if we all jump together holding hands?” Great! “OK, let’s go.”

And then, the irony starts to fade, and some of the kids aren’t sure if they’re doing it for real or not. Then they jump.

This, I’d argue, is a good summary of the mechanism kitsch uses to enter the mainstream culture. It’s familiar to anyone who has watched music genres emerge from mocked obscurity to cultural mainstay, usually through the conduit of hipsters.

In Suicide Club, the high school girls are the hipsters, but over time, the suicide club spreads to the mainstream.

“Have you noticed how quickly fads come and go these days?” comedians joke on the radio, while high school girls hold up signs advertising where to jump. And then the Dessert girls release a new song, and a new chocolate bar. We’re treated to the song – “Sayonara,” – along with scenes of moms graphically dismembering themselves in front of their children.

The Hipster of Darkness
Meandering toward the film’s disappointing conclusion, we meet a glam-era David Bowie lookalike who assumes the role of criminal mastermind – and steps on kitten’s heads along the way. This guy doesn’t make any sense at all without understanding irony as a weapon of psychotic hipsters.

(A reminder that this video may not be suitable for everyone). 

“I want to die as beautifully as Joan of Arc inside a Bresson film,” J-Bowie croons in a song from his unpublished rock opera. Indeed: It’s not about dying as Joan of Arc – which is too authentic – it’s about dying like Joan of Arc in the dramatic black and white of the cinema.

Do it for the drama, Bowie says. Suicide as a fashion accessory, murder for kicks. He’s a bore, the antithesis of the real perpetrators of the trend, whose reasons are much more, forgive me, “authentic.”

Are you connected to yourself?
The climax of the film kicks off with a creepy warning against abstraction from the self, delivered by a 3-year-old with a coughing fit. “What’s your connection to yourself?” he asks. “Why couldn’t you feel the pain of others as you would your own? You are the criminal.”

And so comes the indictment of irony in a film filled with kitschy head explosions – one comes immediately after the baby’s indictment of hipsters and policemen.

And then the last 5 minutes happens. Which I won’t get into, because by that point I was exhausted by this movie criticizing what it can’t solve. The film is a rant, albeit a crazy, enjoyable rant. But that’s precisely the kind of empty culture that this movie is reeling against.

If it was your standard horror film, I wouldn’t complain. But Sono – the director – is an avant-garde poet known for doing guerilla-styled street interventions. One of his other films is about hair extensions that kill people.

So, it’s not surprising that his priority in Suicide Club places social commentary over plot. Which is fine, but social commentary has some responsibility to offer solutions instead of leaving it all on the viewer.

So this film is inconsistent, an approach that a reviewer for Indian Auteur magazine explains away in a kind of apology for Sono’s shortcomings:

“His films are not deliberate attempts at making a point, or a calculated effort at raising a concern (see Godard’s work of the 70s), but admissions of his inability to comprehend the reasons for those concerns in the first place.”

In other words: Sono is making movies about being baffled. Which explains why the resolution is so convoluted – striving for the depth of a Lynch film but instead becoming a Soundgarden video from hell.

As entertainment, it’s hard not to enjoy the blatant weirdness of the film’s scenes and premise, or the dark humor that permeates it. But as social satire,  it’s a lopsided film that asks its viewers to work too hard for no reward.

After all, even Rebecca Black’s success had a silver lining for the Japanese Red Cross.

Further Reading:
Midnight Eye’s review of Suicide Club

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2 Responses to J-Cin Sundays: Suicide Club

  1. I didn’t think this movie made any sense, and I own it. The Bowie scenes were ridiculous.

  2. Blue Shoe says:

    I’ve heard of this one…not sure if I’ll ever watch it, though. Sounds too over the top, as you said. That’s one thing I don’t particularly enjoy about a lot of Japan’s modern cinema – movies don’t just present a point, they really hammer it into you. Hard.

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