Some ten years after its original Japanese release, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club (aka Jisatsu Circle, 自殺サークル) finally reaches UK shores, making its debut on DVD in this country. So why has it taken so long to become available in this country? Suicide Club’s controversial nature and lashings of gore certainly wouldn’t have raised anymore eyebrows amongst censors than other examples of the extreme Asian cinema wave at the turn of the century, such as Kinji Fukusaku’s Battle Royale and the many mad movies of Takashi Miike. Perhaps then it was a matter of timing, considering that particular niche fast became oversaturated and all but petered out before the decade was up. Or perhaps it didn’t get a release until now because it’s actually just not very good?
In any case, Suicide Club is perhaps best known for its opening, an exercise in pure attention-grabbing bravura which sets up the whole story: a class of schoolgirls all gather at their local train station on their way home from class. They giggle, gossip and chatter as their transport pulls in. But then, all of a sudden, they jump off onto the tracks in unison, their bodies burst under the heavy load, and the platform is awash with blood. So begins an investigation led by Detective Kuroda (Audition’s Ryo Ishibashi) into the spate of group teenage suicides taking place, uncovering links to a strange internet site that may or may not hold the key. And where do cutesy idol girl-group Dessert and their catchy hit song “Mail Me” fit into all this?
The strength of Suicide Club is in its ideas, tapping into very real social fears that are part of the modern Japanese psyche. For starters, suicide itself has become a genuine problem in Japan, with excessive stress levels, long working hours, increased isolation, and strict conformity all to blame. But a cultural acceptability, tied to a traditional romanticism of sorts which considered taking one’s life to be a justifiable course of action, suggest the causes run deeper than external pressures. On a broader level, Sono adds familiar high school tropes involving cliques and peer pressure to the mix, as well as playing to parental concerns borne out of a lack of understanding of teenage fads and obsessions (mobile phones, the internet, and pop music are some of the main targets here). And running through this heady concoction is a wonderfully charged premise – a horror film in which you are your own killer. Suicide Club has a lot going for it, but that’s the problem, and one that it shares with much of the director’s work – it’s all too much for it to cope.
With all these ideas and influences buzzing around, Sono has great difficulty following the multiple strands through, let alone tying them all together or offering any kind of resolution, leading to an ultimately disjointed and unsatisfying experience. Though some loose ends are supposedly joined up in prequel-sequel Noriko’s Dinner Table (and that’s not even the last of it, with a tie-in book required to fill in even more gaps), the constant narrative-hopping and frustrating vagueness is more likely to perplex and befuddle than intrigue and entertain. This is in contrast to his greatest film so far, the four hour long Love Exposure, which uses its admittedly daunting running time to allow his characters and themes to properly breathe and feel fully fleshed out – sure, it sags a little around the third hour, but it is successful because of, rather than despite, its length.
It is a shame, as Suicide Club not only touches on some interesting concepts, but also includes some truly unnerving, memorable and downright nutty moments. The aforementioned opening is naturally a highlight, but there are some more traditional spooky sequences which are still surprisingly chilling and effective in a way that his more recent J-horror effort Exte: Hair Extensions wasn’t. A darkly comic montage featuring various members of the public happily ending their lives is genuinely shocking, while a bizarre musical interlude featuring Japanese rock-star Rolly, plus a bit of rape, bowling, and animal slaughter, certainly lingers in the mind. But it also sums up what a mess all these disparate elements jumbled up together creates, in which the weirdness jars with what is effectively a more conventional, though still grisly, detective story.
If you have the stomach and the inclination, Suicide Club remains an interesting failure in experimenting with the clichés of both the J-horror subgenre and serial killer flicks, and it’s useful for those seeking out the earlier works of one of Japan’s most twisted directors, even if he’s not always the most disciplined. Yet it squanders its potential in a muddle of over-the-top gore and undercooked mystery. With J-pop numbers.