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Suicide Club
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A flesh wound from Suicide Club.

AKA: Suicide Circle
Year: 2001
Director: Sion Sono
  Producer: Tomita Toshikazu, Kawamata Masaya, Yoshida Seiji
  Writer: Sion Sono  
  Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Masatoshi Nagase, Yoko Kamon, Kimiko Yo, Hideo Sako, Akaji Maro, Rolly
The Skinny: Part detective story, part social critique, Suicide Circle is a bloody, oddly comic thriller that attempts to lampoon the fad-driven aspects of Japanese pop culture while at the same time delivering a creepy whodunit. Thanks to the more mystery-driven elements, the film makes for compelling viewing despite its frustrating conclusion and heavy-handed attempts at satire.
  Warning: POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD! Read at own Risk.
  Review by Calvin McMillin:

     Only a few opening sequences in film history could rival the pure shock value of Suicide Club’s bizarre, gruesomely bloody intro. The film begins with an abnormally large crowd of chirpy Japanese schoolgirls gathering together at a subway station platform. In unison, the fifty-four girls suddenly step beyond the yellow line, join hands, and cheerfully plunge in front of the oncoming train—with excruciatingly gory results. To say the screen is “bathed in blood” would not be hyperbole. After witnessing such a bizarre, truly iconic sight, even the most jaded viewer will have to ask, “What the hell was that all about?”
      Well, that's exactly what Detective Kuroda (Audition's Ryo Ishibashi) and his police cohorts are asking themselves when they learn of the brutal mass suicide. What would compel fifty-four young girls—all from different schools—to take their lives in such a grisly manner? And what are they to make of the mysterious bag left at the crime scene that contains a roll of human skin stitched together? And how does this connect to Dessert, the all-girl pop sensation whose music is played incessantly throughout the movie, often preceding each suicide?
     Thankfully, the baffled detectives receive a call from a hacker (Yoko Kamon) calling herself "The Bat". Her cryptic tips lead the police to a mysterious website that appears to be posting information on the suicides before they happen. And happen again they do. The initial subway deaths are just the beginning of what seems to be a never-ending chain of self-destruction. But why?
     As the bodies start piling up, Kuroda receives another call, this time from an anonymous source who tells the detective to lay off the case and just so happens to sound a lot like a boy with a frog in his throat. The coughing boy's message: "There is no Suicide Club." Undeterred by the child's warnings, Kuroda presses on, with fatal results. What follows is a tangled web of clues left for the team of detectives—and ultimately the viewers—to sort out for themselves.
     Although an entertaining ride, Suicide Club is a mixed bag to say the least. When the plot is focused on Kuroda's investigation, the film maintains a creepy edge that places it in the same category as some of the better suspense thrillers in recent memory. But the movie loses that edge when it tries to be a social critique of mindless J-Pop-driven culture. Unlike George Romero's horror film/social satire, Dawn of the Dead, Sion Sono's Suicide Club fails to merge its two objectives in a satisfying way. If Sono would have employed just a tad bit more subtlety and relied less on exaggerated dark comedy, Suicide Club's barbs against mindless fads would have been far more resonant. Instead, they jeopardize the more straight-faced police procedural that dominates the plot.
     But still, aside from the somewhat heavy-handed satirical riffs, Suicide Circle makes for compelling, oftentimes daring entertainment. The film takes a sharp turn at the three-quarter point, with a bold double twist reminiscent of Psycho and To Live and Die in L.A.. What immediately follows this twist is a deliciously evil fake-out, involving the introduction of Genesis (Rolly), a charismatic, Ziggy Stardust-meets-Charles Manson character who claims to be the true leader of Suicide Club. But just when the viewer thinks they are getting the answers they've been searching for the entire movie, the filmmakers pull a fast one: Genesis is just a fame-obsessed red herring.
      Instead of capitalizing on this jarring revelation, the film then proceeds to the head-scratching finale involving a cabal of tiny, prepubescent cultists who may or may not have psychic powers. Unfortunately, the final unraveling of the mystery isn't explained in even a cursory way, and is instead left frustratingly ambiguous. That's Suicide Club's biggest problem: it spells out the things that it shouldn't (the satire); yet it remains unnecessarily vague about the things it's required to reveal (the secret of Suicide Club).
     Suicide Club is at its best when it doesn't comment on the images that it shows. One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is the suggestion that what the boy told Kuroda is correct: that there is in fact no Suicide Club, that the initial mass suicide is an inexplicable tragedy, and that the deaths that occured afterwards are just one giant idiotic fad. But while some of the suicides are shown to be rash, copycat actions (and therefore ripe for satire), the film clearly shows that a sweeping conspiracy exists—with the blame placed squarely on some sort of secret "suicide solution" messages hidden in the idiotic pop songs of Dessert. But again, the question arises: why? How is Dessert connected to the "masterminds" revealed in the bizarre conclusion? Who are those mutant kids? And why the hell is Dessert misspelled in numerous ways throughout the film? Instead of using the dénouement to give the viewer some explanation—or at least a mild suggestion—of what Suicide Club is all about, the filmmakers instead opt for more questions.
     As frustrating as Suicide Club may be, there is no denying that it does succeed in hooking viewers with its highly original concept. The film manages to establish a sense of creeping dread; the anticipation of what lurks around each corner proves far more terrifying than the cheap scare tactics employed in other films. Ryo Ishibashi exudes a sense of decency and commitment to his mission—qualities that have a definite payoff later in the film. As Kuroda, Ishibashi gives the viewers a solid protagonist they can latch onto during the dark journey ahead.
     The lack of clear answers will frustrate many (this reviewer included) but what Suicide Club attempts to say and do, coupled with its success in executing some of those goals, makes the film worth recommending. And even with its baffling conclusion, there's at least one lesson to be gleaned from Suicide Club: J-Pop may be hazardous to your health. (Calvin McMillin, 2004)

Notes: Rumor has it that a sequel or two is in the works that will clear up some of the more ambiguous aspects of the plot. Let’s hope so.
• Although perhaps needless to say, the unrated version contains far more explicit gore than the R-rated version.
Awards: 2001 Fantasia Festival
• Winner - Grand Jury Prize for Most Groundbreaking Film
• Winner - Groundbreaker Award [Second Place] (Sion Sono)

TLA Releasing
Region 1 NTSC
Available in Separate Unrated and R-Rated Versions
Japanese Language Track
English Subtitles
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