Jisatsu sâkuru (Suicide Circle/ Suicide Club) – Sion Sono

21 Dec

Nationality: Japan

Year: 2002

Pros: Superb Japanese horror film that is not supernatural, not slasher or crazy psycho.  Instead it is that super-rare type of horror that manages to be something else entirely and becomes an important allegory about life as we know it.  What one might term painful but necessary.

Cons: That bloody red paint!!!

A busy day at Shinjuku station, Tokyo.  Trains are coming and going.  People swarm – smart businessmen, giggling children – travellers.  It is a noisy, frenetic place.  Then a train approaches – and suddenly, out of the crowd, a swarm of young schoolgirls have suddenly materialised on the platform edge, still chattering gaily.  Waiting for a train, one supposes.  But they are standing in a perfect line, hand in hand.  And they cheerfully cry “and a one, and a two, and a three” . . .

54 schoolgirls plunge off the platform in front of the train.  Still beaming happily.  The mess is so extreme that the train can’t even break properly, it’s breaks rendered useless by human grease . . .

The above scene that opens this film is so infamous that there is little point in trying to hide it for spoiler reasons.  Sono films it well and subtly considering the material and when you consider what a voyeuristic mess it could be.  It is the sheer weirdness of it that impresses more than the horror.  The feeling that something ‘socially bizarre’ has happened, in spite of the over-liberal use of red paint.  And that feeling is far more crucial that it at first seems.  It is played like one of those flash mob videos – a touch of complete strangeness suddenly erupting in the middle of perfect normalcy.  Only instead of a crowd attacking each other with pillows or freezing still in a supermarket, 54 happy schoolgirls suddenly link hands in an orderly line and plunge gaily off the platform . . .

The first of many many MANY suicides.

I had heard that Sion Sono’s Suicide Circle was something special – an infamous and mesmerising and very complex film.  Like many of the best, it annoyed as many people as it wowed and talk of its power and complexity achieved an almost legendary status, as did the hate-reviews from those who seemed personally offended by it, one reviewer even expressing the desire to ‘break Sono’s neck’.  No one has ever says it was boring – people either loathed it or worshipped it, some of both understanding it and some not.  And that means that this film has to be having a very strong impact on people, regardless of their rating.  This certainly made it required viewing.

Maybe you would like to break my neck as well, Mr. IMDB Reviewer, because, having actually watched it at last, I will stick my neck right out for you and call it one of the most interesting Japanese horror films I have ever seen.  Also one of the most complex and enigmatic ones.  And most challenging.  It manages that because the approaches and techniques it uses are so unexpected from a horror film.  And because, in the end, it has taken us to places expected from neither this movie or any other.  Profound places.

I call it a horror movie because there is little doubt of its genre allegiance.   The first part of the film has some familiar horror movie moments that are almost reassuring in their familiarity.  Though nothing that jars or irritates, with the one exception of the special effects and the fake blood. Which is handled rather ridiculously, to my mind.  And yet there is something about the film that is very different to most that horror produces.  That, to use an over-used phrase, transcends its horror foundations.  Crucially, by the end we realise that it is not supernatural horror at all.  No ghosts or evil entities or possession drive these suicides.  It is not psycho horror either – though occasionally it gives the illusion of brushing close.  For a while, it seems that we are dealing with straightforward incitement to suicide by a loopy character taking advantage of the powers of the internet – but then even that crumbles and we are left with . . . what?  Just what is this film?  I am tempted to try making up a new (to me) classification actually – sociological horror.  That is, horror where the central driving influence comes from nothing supernatural or even out of the ordinary – but lies directly within the normal life and society that surrounds us.  Sociological Horror thus has the potential for incredible power since, instead of rampaging evil, it can simply point a finger at the perfectly normal world out there and show you things more horrific than any ghost.  Horror that is an indictment of normal life.

After the bloodbath at Shinjuku, it seems for a while as though we are in quite normal spooky story territory as the detectives try and work out what happened and what is going on in this city.  It is a detective story at this point.  A portrayal of weary and bewildered Japanese detectives slowly coming to realise that there is more going on than meets the eye.  Suicides are occurring all over the city in extraordinary numbers.  There is talk of a ‘Fad’ among the young people – no surprise in a world where fads rule.  There is talk of a suicide club.  But strange and gruesome artefacts are turning up accompanying some of the suicides – long, rolled chains made of dozens, hundreds of small pieces of human skin sewn together.  Some with tattoos.  Skin from different people.  Eerie websites haunt the net, seemingly connected to the suicide spate and even tallying them.  Even tallying them before they happen.  So far, we are still very much in J-horror territory – but that doesn’t last.  Throughout the film, there is another presence that becomes more and more apparent – that of civilization itself.  The TV is filled with images of the latest idol phenomena – a band of singers, children of 12, 13, 14 whose name keeps changing.  Sometimes it is Dessert – sweet and sickly.  But tellingly it sometimes becomes transmuted into Desert – the barren wasteland.  Singing over and over – the film hammering home people’s addiction to unreal idolization and the general sheep-like nature of society, lost without their fashions to follow and their idols to worship.  These pretty dancing kids are a constant annoying presence and everyone loves them.  By the end of the film though, nothing is as it seems.  Even this.  Sono has managed to completely overturn all our expectations and taken us to some very bizarre and enigmatic places.

Ok – there are a few things that grate, which I should perhaps get off my chest.  Personal opinions and all that.  The biggest annoyance is the special effects.  I am usually quite forgiving of those but in this case I was getting quite exasperated . . . well, minimal research demonstrates that human beings are NOT water balloons filled with red paint who can burst over wide areas.  The always-liberal Japanese use of fake blood has been taken to the nth degree here, becoming the most surreal element in the film.  Restraint anyone???  Ok, so Sono’s handling of these mass-suicides is unusually well done and handled with great subtlety, but they still look a bit like an explosion in a paint factory sometimes.  Also there are a few plot holes – and passages that just don’t ring true.  But even this doesn’t temper my opinion that this is one of the best horror movies out there.

This is where you should perhaps watch the film – then come back and read the rest, because this is such a bizarre film that I have to analyse it a little.  And that means spoilers.  And this is such a twisting, turning journey that I would hate to spoil it for you!

*    *    *

“Here’s my logic – the director was a screwed up person in the first place. Who films gay porn for a living? there’s got to be something wrong with him. His friend committed suicide, he got even more phsycotic (sic.). So he shot a film about what goes on in head and showed it to everyone – thanks man – very deep (no sarcasm this time). [. . .]

I have to give it to Sono (the director), you have created one of the most disturbing/ridiculous pictures . . . . You can shoot someone in front of me and I’d be pretty much OK with it, but you show me a movie like this and I want to pound your face in. [. . .]

There you have it – this movie is full of crap, and if I ever meet Sono – I will break his neck.”

maxzhukov from United States – IMDB

Kind of humorous, huh?  Actually, I quickly gave up reading through the IMDB reviews because the display of hostility and ‘western ignorance trampling all over eastern sensibilities’ was making my stomach turn over.  Often it is “I don’t get it” transmuting into “I hate it” as is so often the case.  Aah the vitriol that this film generates!  It is, if anything, even worse than the flap about The Isle.  To be fair though, even the Japanese had trouble with this one. People everywhere react with rage, bolstering that with incoherent insults that never seemed to find any actual point to convey that doesn’t collapse under analysis.  Either that or picking minor plot holes in it that have little to do with the actual message or scope of the film, which is essentially allagorical..

“54 girls jump happily to the oncoming train. This is ridiculous – it just cannot happen. Director failed to show why they did it, even in this movie’s reality. I don’t care what you do to these girls, they won’t do it. If you can’t even show why they did it, how am I supposed to believe that its even possible? Here’s an analogy – I kicked a monkey and it turned into an elephant. I don’t know how or why – it just did it.

Director’s message is: They just did it and I do not know why. Thanks – very deep.”

maxzhukov from United States – IMDB

Sorry sir – but you are completely wrong.  The Director knows precisely why it happened – and told us why it happened.  You just didn’t see it.  It is right there in the film if you would care to actually listen to what it is telling you.

The obvious cause of the flap is that the film – especially the ending – is far from clear cut and is highly enigmatic.  Nothing is easily explained (a dangerous trick when conveying such dark and painful messages as this film does).  I sometimes suspect that a disturbingly large amount of these more complex Japanese movies gets lost in translation – which of course also means lost in the cultural shift.  And even more gets lost in the viewing, especially if you have a mind like Mr. Maxzhukov From United States, who doesn’t seem to have actually tried very hard to tune himself to the wavelength of this film.  Japan is a very similar culture in some ways – enough for the critiques the film contains to have equal relevance here.  But it is also very different, with an entirely different religious and cultural foundation.  It is almost certainly very hard to get a handle on without some experience of the Japanese aesthetic – but I could rephrase that.  It is a very hard film to get a handle on without opening yourself up to it on its own terms and succeeding in listening to what it is actually saying.  To me, even cultural identity only goes so far and is only so important.  After all, any film or book becomes a direct dialogue between you and it and, at the fundamental level, I believe that this is a self-contained thing.  Awareness of the Japanese Buddhist/Shinto background and their attitude to death and reincarnation – or the cultural contradiction of ‘honourable suicide’ and ‘taboo subject’ – are only relevant up to a point.  Personally, I found this a hard film to grasp – but also a distinctly universal one.  An enigma that has to be unpicked in your own way and with an open mind.  Which is essentially what surrealism is about.

The question that is asked throughout the film is are you connected to yourself? And that question is the key.  What does it mean?  Some have ‘translated’ it to mean ‘do you believe in yourself’ – and that is a part of it.  But even so, the sense on connection and disconnection within us is a quite profound and universal one, regardless of the culture that you are founded on.  Disconnect means more than just being wrapped up in work, caught up in trends, fashions and idolisation.  It means not being connected to yourself as an authentic and truthful human being.  One may be connected to others – to duties, to loves, to commitments.  But connected to yourself?  And that is possibly one of the main causes of modern angst.

The detective investigation winds on in this sick city, going nowhere.  An arrest is made of a loopy singer* who seems to be behind the suicides – possibly inciting them – but this only proves to be a complete nothing.  A nicely orchestrated ‘false ending’ to the story in fact.  Whatever is causing this just continues, unstoppable in its mystery.  Like a weather phenomenon.  Or like a disease with purging symptoms.  At this point, the story gives up being a detective story.  It climbs up onto a new level and suddenly the familiar trappings of the first part of the film are revealed as totally insignificant.  This ‘detective mystery’ will never be solved, because it is something utterly beyond the possibility of any policeman to understand.

When we finally find out who/what is behind all this, it is at once not very surprising and extremely surprising.  After watching that annoying kid band singing away throughout the film, it is not so surprising to find that it is children agenting this suicide spate, but the way it is handled is totally surprising.  It is surprising because, in the end, the title of this film holds up and that is what makes it such a disturbing (and powerful) story.  This is indeed a suicide circle – not a murder circle.  People do this because they want to – need to.  Not through coercion.

*Bloody hell – I am gobsmacked!  This character has a crazy horrible absurdism that either works perfectly or completely turns you off, depending on your point of view.  I have to ask if those two qualities are mutually exclusive though . . .

“The director has issues. He films gay porn for a living and his friend committed suicide. But look “Mr.Director”, leave the little children alone man, they did not tell him to kill himself – I’m pretty sure.”

Guess who – IMDB

While there may be no single ‘right’ way of looking at this film, there are almost certainly wrong ways, and one of those is to see and dismiss this suicide spate as an ‘evil’ inflicted on the world by some horror-show force.  Evil Kids in other words.  This is no tale of possessed or evil kids, that much is certain.  Instead we have Children, with ‘the perception that comes with innocence’, essentially ‘passing judgement’ and facilitating what might be termed a cleansing and healing suicide.  By asking that question – are you connected to yourself? One could say that children are still somewhat sensitive to the world.  Still somewhat holding a lingering touch of fundamental humanity, which only gets lost as civilization begins its grind*.  Maybe this film creeps people out because it resonates with a certain truth to it.  We don’t like to admit that the changes that happen to us as we grow up and grow into this sickly world could be changes for the worse rather than the better, but I am quite prepared to believe that children know something that we have forgotten and, in their simplicity, be perfectly placed to take on the allegorical role as judges of the world.  So, in dramatic contrast to the ‘evil children’ way of seeing this, it becomes almost a tribute to the power of childhood innocence.  And even that seemingly annoying band of TV idols seem to change at the end of the film.  Becoming something else that has taken on this crass media-culture form because that is the only way to reach out and touch and convey their message – to those who want to hear it . . .

So is the super-bleak message that this film ultimately conveys that death and suicide are only a natural and normal part/symptom of living the troubling life that is civilization as we know it?  Not a comforting message maybe – but that doesn’t make it wrong.  Suicide becomes a form of salvation – regardless of whatever religious background you have when watching this film, or whether you believe in reincarnation, heaven, the flying spaghetti monster or nothing at all.

And at last the happy smiles of those 54 school girls come clear.

*You also have to remember the role that children play in Japanese life.  In Japan, their innocence is given the credit that it deserves.  In dramatic contrast to the west, where they tend to be seen as faintly embarrassing primitives who need to be moulded into a respectable form for civilization.  And that is another key that helps unlock this film and the bizarre role children play in it.

To actually come out and say such things in a film – especially a horror film* – is incredibly brave.  And it can hardly avoid being controversial.  No surprise then that it sets people like Mr. Maxhukov From United States fuming.  Predictably enough, the film also generates flap as people see it as ‘encouraging’ suicide among the sheep-like masses.  Well – I am doubtful as that is way too simplistic of course.  It is a classic false criticism that a work of art that tries to take a deep long and careful look at a certain subject that people don’t like is inevitably encouraging it.  This is why it is next to impossible to produce a proper film or novel about paedophilia, for example.  And suicide is another of these subjects with a certain amount of hysteria connected to it.  Many films tackle it of course – but this one remains one of the most original and thought-provoking outlooks on the subject.  It is perhaps not surprising on one level at any rate.  As maxzhukov so elegantly explained on IMDB, a close friend of the director killed himself out of the blue for no apparent reason.  So it is only natural for him to sit down and try to think about the phenomenon.  And only natural to create this haunting allegory about it.  And if we don’t think about these things then what can we do except drift?  If we cannot embrace the horror of normal life and accept suicide’s role in it, then that horror can never change and that, in itself, becomes a form of complacency.  And that is what really encourages suicide.  That feeling of the unchanging nature of the world around you.  That you can neither change or escape from its wrongness.  And I should know, because suicide has been prominent in my mind on more than one occasion.

*He says with seeming contradiction – but it isn’t really since horror remains one of the most emotionally conservative genres.  Usually.

In the enigmatic end though, the message of Suicide Circle seems more positive than this – or at least very far from direct and clear cut.  The enigmatic final scenes of Suicide Circle are not horrific.  Any trappings of the horror movie have been left far behind now.  And we are left with a strange dark and extremely moving mystery.  Even as one sees civilization convulsing in this cathartic spasm of suicides (that seems totally fantastical on the one hand and makes perfect sense on the other), one is also left with a feeling of the power of life that can cut through this easy death and lack of connection.  The question are you connected to yourself? has two possible answers.  And to answer with a ‘yes’, as the final character does, inevitably comes with defiance.  And defiance is a good thing, worthy of the rousing cheer that greets it in the film.  I suspect that sensitive people who have actually looked suicide in the face, or thought bitterly about it in the lonely nights, might understand the feelings that the end of this film generates.  And can maybe find strength in it, not horror.  So the ultimate message is one of hope.  And of a certain faith in the human entity.

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