[Warning: Spoilers flow like warm guano here.
The apocalypse arrives with a song in Shion Sono's imperfect but weirdly haunting film "Suicide Club". It's a spiritual cousin to David Cronenberg's seminal "Videodrome" (more so than Oliver Assayas's tepid "demonlover") in its caustic look at media influence, especially since both films have their pop-culture messengers ultimately bent on wiping out "undesirables". It's difficult and often oblique to no purpose -- in fact, I thought the film a disaster the first time I saw it. But it's a film that has something to get off its chest, and it's got ways of making us pay attention.
Before the title even shows up onscreen, the film has its hooks in the viewer -- it has one of the most singular and unforgettable opening sequences I've yet encountered. Picture this: Fifty-four Japanese schoolgirls, all clad in their uniforms, stroll down into a subway station. They all join hands, step in front of the yellow line, and with a merry "A one and a two", all of them leap onto the tracks just in time to be mulched into teenage gravy by an arriving train. Even if you know it's coming (which I did), it's one hell of a sight as well as a sign that Sono is not going to be playing nice. It turns out that these fifty-four girls are the latest and most public in a series of random suicides. The cops (one of whom is played by Ryo Ishibashi, who played Aoyama in "Audition") start to suspect that something may be amiss when white sports bags containing large chains of human skin turn up at multiple suicide sites. So, can the suicides be stopped? Who exactly is responsible, if anyone? Is there really a Suicide Club behind it all? Can the answer be found on the Internet or elsewhere? Or does this all have something to do with the meteoric rise in popularity of a J-pop group named Dessart and their inane-yet-catchy song "Mail Me"? And how does a sullen teen who watched her boyfriend hurtle himself off a building figure into this?
That flood of rhetorical questions just goes to demonstrate how overambitious the plot is. As the suicides pile up and hints of what might be are tossed out, there comes a point where it seems the best answer would be none at all. The film has so many balls up in the air that any concrete solutions will send some of them hurtling to Earth. And at first, it looks like the movie will pull a total collapse with the introduction of Genesis, a Ziggy-Stardust-wannabe nutjob who lives in a bowling alley with his gang, crushes animals under his platform heels and gets to sing a truly terrible glam-rock song that sounds as though it took all of two minutes to write. That this material is lame is without question; what makes it even more egregious is that it's a red herring -- a side detour in a film that already had enough detours, thanks much. What comes next is the make-or-break real ending, in which we find out that a cadre of children obsessed with "your connection to you" in league with Dessart is behind the whole sordid business. (Part of whether or not you can swallow this is whether or not you can watch the climactic scene with the sullen teen and the kids without giggling at the awful acting.) Their intentions are... well, what exactly are their intentions?
At first glance, they could pass for jes' plain evil -- after all, they've hounded dozens of people into suicide, including the detective played by Mr. Ishibasi (right after he'd discovered the bodies of his children, no less!). But there's a line in the climax that sets all that on its ear: As Ms. Pout (I forget her name) is passing through a line of kids on her way to her final judgement, one kid says to her, "If you were to die, your connection to the world would still remain. So why are you alive?" It took me a minute to realize that the question wasn't intended as an insult but rather a self-analytic conundrum. Traditional Japanese society is often characterized as one that exists on the premise that the happiness of others is preferable to your own (hence seppuku, salarymen, the Yakuza, what have you). And, in a society where suicide is considered less humiliating than dishonor... well, suicide might catch on as a fad. Like Genesis sings during his little number, "The dead shine all night long." (Or, as Cop Shoot Cop put it, "Everybody loves you when you're dead.") Speaking of fads, the fact that many of the victims are young'uns points to the easy time fads have in rampaging through Japanese youth culture (personal identity problems, perhaps?). What could be better than spreading one fad (suicide) Trojan-horsed inside another (Dessart)? A crucial scene in this respect is the scene where, during lunchtime, a macabre joke about a "suicide club" ends up becoming a reality. The children, then, in asking questions like the one mentioned previous, are calling people to look inside and find their sense of self. Those who defiantly reply, "I'm me! I'm connected to myself!" like Ms. Pout does go on and live their lives; the ones who search within and find only empty space volunteer to grease train axles.
Does the film work? To a degree, sure; the first hour works like gangbusters before Genesis shoves his snout in and briefly ruins everything. And yeah, the crux of the film does more or less depend on acceptance of both bouncy J-pop and bad child acting (Sono, while a confrontational writer, still needs to develop as a director). But the essential message gets through: Sono has taken a look at the society around him, finds much not to like and reaches out to slap everyone in the face. It's not "Battle Royale", but the final lesson is the same: Wake the fuck up.