A strong undercurrent of family drama runs through Sion Sono's films, beginning with the independent work and internationally renowned — and notorious — 自殺サークル/Suicide Club from 2002 onward. I give Bong Joon-ho enormous props for his Western market breakout success in 괴물/The Host, masking the family drama in a popcorn monster movie like bitter medicine mixed w/ honey, but Sono-san has performed this deft feat for years, to fulfilling effect for we the viewers. This holds true for Sono's cheeky, unrestrained jab at J-Horror, the exploded genre (re)adapted continually by either Western directors or by the original Japanese — long black hair, yurei-style — and I'm talking about エクステ/Exte from 2007, which, believe it or not, despite the "killer hair extensions" subhed, is, at its heart, a family drama.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, only...this is how I got into Sono. Exte, at the 2007 NYAFF/Japan Cuts film festival. I'd HEARD of Sono, specifically his Suicide Club film, which at that time carried w/ it the methodically chosen words of Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale (which I'd seen, in university). I'd meant to view Suicide Club, going off the understanding that 1) it's really shockingly violent and 2) Western audiences tend to not understand it, but for whatever reason I slacked and saw Exte first. I also met Sono at the Q&A — he and his perpetual derby hat — and audience members made comparisons to his other films, Suicide Club of course but also Strange Circus, and I knew something was up. I'd just seen Exte, which challenged notions of stock J-Horror whilst infusing it w/ a family dynamic b/w the lead Chiaki Kuriyama, her screwed up sister (played by Tsugumi), and Tsugumi's cutie-pie niece — plus an allusion to Kuriyama's character's abortion. This director had achieved something VERY interesting, and if this energy resonated in his earlier films, as gleaned from audience input, I had to see them all.
1st thing you need to realize about Suicide Club is the points I alluded to above (specifically the shocking violence) are very much in effect, though this is ostensibly a "family drama". Gore SFX expert and filmmaker Yoshihiro Nishimura (I'm a big fan) collaborated w/ Sono, which is evident like three minutes into the film. The "money shot" — the one that earned Suicide Club its gruesome membership to a club of other extremely violent Japanese films (Takashi Miike's 殺し屋１/Ichi the Killer and Audition, Fukasaku's aforementioned Battle Royale) — comes straight off, sending the film onto an unhinged-roller-coaster-ride. That shot: 54 high-school girls, loose-socks and preppy uniforms and all that, step forward en masse on a Shinjuku station platform, lock hands, and leap in front of an express train. The tidal wave of blood that follows, splashing the windows and spraying waiting passengers, is accompanied by the innocuous Tokyo subway-specific sounds (the musical tone when a train approaches, the robot woman's voice announcing arrivals/departures). Perhaps the most unsettling thing here, even beyond the shot of a girl's head being crushed watermelon-like by a train wheel, is that these HS girls seemed HAPPY as they approached their certain deaths. What is going on here, and what is Sono trying to say?? As the police come in, led admirably by Ryo Ishibashi (who seems to never get a good break; he was the hapless guy in Audition) and Masatoshi Nagase (all limbs and nerves; think Jo Odagiri in 10 years), they don't seem to "get it" either. This is where my point two (the "seemingly opaque" plot) comes in: you don't need to be Japanese to understand what just happened, nor what Sono achieves in Suicide Club. You don't even necessarily need to be a Japanese language student (like I am), partial to cultural nuances gleaned from grammar studies and conversation. But it helps A LOT, if you're neither of these things, to at least have an interest in Japanese culture — both the classical (animism, spirituality) and contemporary (youth dynamics, "fitting in").
And while the 54 girls jumping in front of the train remains burned into my consciousness, it's not the most disturbing scene for me. That award goes to the high-school rooftop, where the students are talking about the suicides and agreeing, rather lightheartedly it would seem, to die now, w/ one another. A group approaches the ledge, deciding to do just that. Most of them jump and the remainder, after some shaky hesitation, follow suit. Think about that for a moment: they agreed to follow their friends in death, and not even their peers, disconnected to that conversation, can talk them back down from jumping. What SHOULD be a clear sign of the adults' disconnect to the young (dying) people is Ishibashi's relationship w/ his family. His son and daughter (and eventually his wife) are all fans of this prepackaged J-Pop group Dezāto (intentionally romanized as "Dessart", "Dessret", and "Desert" in the film) and their saccharine anthem "Mail Me". Pay attention here, b/c Ishibashi certainly isn't! This one and the other two Dezāto songs, "Puzzle" and "Live As You Please" (during the end credits) meant to be way more than innocuous background music. Themes of connection (waiting for your best friend's phone call/email, how one fits into the world w/ the jigsaw puzzle metaphor) are explicitly spelled out by Dezāto, chirpily annoying though the girls may be. That's why Ishibashi's own suicide — he shoots himself in the mouth after returning to find his family killed themselves — should not come as a huge shocker. It is obvious leading up to this point that the "case", the many seemingly unrelated suicides, are wearing him down, yet he is visibly aloof from his own wife and kids. When the cops stake out the train platforms on several other occasions, on the tip that a group of students would jump again, they see instead a whole host of capable subjects: drunken salarymen, forlorn and withdrawn figures, bubbly high-school students, stressed mothers. To them, the law enforcers, ANY of these people — ALL of them — could be jumpers. And as a group of girls approach the platform's painted yellow line as the train approaches and they DON'T jump — here the cops and we the viewers gasp for air — the officers have no idea what they are dealing with. The adult response to the suicides — hyperbolized by the Ziggy Stardust-ish visual kei rocker Rolly, taking credit for his so-called "suicide club" of drugs, murder and sex — further accentuates this generational rift. Its key antithesis is young Saya Hagiwara's reaction to her boyfriend's death: she finds his chalk outline in the street and, overcome w/ grief, lays in it, futilely trying to reconnect w/ him.
(many thanks to Baptism of Blood for the Suicide Club screen-grabs)
Sono followed Suicide Club with 紀子の食卓 /Noriko's Dinner Table, a breathtaking 2.5 hr companion film — centered around the events of Suicide Club, from a specific tangent to the action — and my favorite of his oeuvre. It enlightens upon one of the key elements of Suicide Club, the question "are you connected to yourself?", w/o dispelling all the mysteries of that film. But just in focusing on this interconnectivity, via a Toyokawa-based family and many "rental families" in big-city Tokyo, Sono created an entirely relatable family drama. The universal ideas of generational gaps, family ties, communication v. alienation and mass media, can and do apply everywhere. Titular character Noriko (wonderfully Kazue Fukiishi, who I knew as the "serious" member of the Babbling Hotsprings Vixens from Katsuhito Ishii's ナイスの森 /Funky Forest), the elder of two sisters in a typical countryside family, is totally put out w/ her dull existence and goofy journalist father Tetsuzo (Ken Mitsuishi, wonderfully again). She befriends some Tokyo girls and flees one night to the city to meet up w/ the ringleader "Ueno54" (bewitchingly Tsugumi), a slightly punkish girl her age named Kumiko. Only...Kumiko is accompanied by her "family", dad, mom and younger bro. They ride in a minivan to go visit Grandma, while Kumiko changes from her punkish outfit into a schoolgirl uniform. Everyone is having a kickass time at Grandma's house: they eat, recant travel tales and Noriko is part of the action. Then they load up the van...to visit another Grandma. Only, this time Dad's smoking a cigarette and the family is deadpan (save Noriko, who is tremendously confused) until Grandma appears in line-of-sight, then it's cheers and laughter, presents and food, all that family warmth they'd just had at other Grandma's. Then they load up the van...do you see where this is going? Kumiko is an integral member of a "family rental" organization, she plays the role of daughter/spouse/jilted lover/sister what-have-you, to paying clients. In this instance, everyone was "fake", yet for that allotted time (like 1/2 hour w/ the Grandmas) they were "family", they were "connected". Do you see the relation to Suicide Club?
Noriko is slow on the uptake, as any of us probably would be in her situation. I mean, she came to Tokyo to find Kumiko (Ueno54) and those other girls, yet now she's playing a role in "families". She finally "gets it" when she and Kumiko don early '80s punk attire and go visit some drunken mop-haired guy in his ramshackle house. He's the "dad", they're the "runaway daughters". He berates them in extremely rough language, Kumiko cries, he smacks Kumiko across the face. Then Noriko, instinctively/automatically, shouts "Stop it, Dad!" — she freezes, she has succumbed to Kumiko's organization and is now truly playing her role. Girls and "Dad" cry, they make up, they have dinner. The timer goes off and Noriko isn't ready to end the session, having sectioned in her head that THIS is her father, THIS is her sister, THIS is her house, but Kumiko knows better and is all business. The guy pays them and they move on. We learn in a flashback that Kumiko was abandoned by her mother (supposedly in the same coin-locker in Ueno Station as where she took her avatar's name), but meets a woman claiming to be her mother in a diner. She propositions the woman to join her organization, along w/ a guy (the "original Dad") to be a father-figure. Her whole thing is building fake, albeit meaningful at the time, relationships. Noriko meets the other girls, who are part of the Shibuya 54 who leap in front of the train in the first few minutes of Suicide Club. Throughout Noriko's Dinner Table we hear that such a club doesn't exist, that if anything it's part of Kumiko's family-rental organization. But news spreads to Tokoyama of the disaster and Yuka (the absolutely adorable Yuriko Yoshitaka, in her debut role), Noriko's little sister, flees to the big city to find her and is quickly swept into Kumiko's group.
Back in Tokoyama, Tetsuzo goes bonkers with grief. He quits his job, his wife Taeko blames herself for their daughters' disappearances and kills herself. Tetsuzo falls back on his journalist roots and begins researching, canvassing the house for clues (Yuka purposefully leaves a bunch, incl. "Daddy" carved into their dining-room table), building up a case on this Suicide Club (incl. Kumiko's name) and heads to Tokyo. He meets up w/ a guy supposedly in the Suicide Club ("there is no such thing..." he's told) and we get an almost-flashback to the little kids and Saya Hagiwara in Suicide Club (plus the kid on the phone w/ the cops) — asking Tetsuzo "are you connected to yourself?" Unlike the cops in Suicide Club, Tetsuzo gets it: he misses his daughters, he wants to beg forgiveness and start over again. And he's not giving up until he finds them.
Tetsuzo has a friend pretend to be a father wanting a rental wife and daughters, enlists Kumiko, Yuka and Noriko, and leads them to a house that Tetsuzo has meticulously recreated to look precisely as theirs did in Tokoyama. He reveals himself to the girls, Yuka crying and Noriko pretending to not know him, and as the organization's thugs come in to separate him from the girls he pulls out a knife and (in a bunch of off-camera violence, one of the few bloody moments in Noriko's Dinner Table, so it's taken to the extreme) all the "bad guys". Tetsuzo stands there, covered in other guys' blood, a fist clenching his knife, surrounded by pools of blood all over the tatami mats and walls (the iconic DVD image of Kumiko in front of a blood-splashed wall is from this scene). Kumiko begins referring to him as her husband, follows hiim into another room and tries to get him to kill her — like she finally sees the "real connection" b/w he and his real daughters, something she hasn't ever had and/or wanted, and she no longer wants to interfere with that. The girls enter and this segues into a tense and touching fixed-camera scene where Yuka bawls, crying that she wants to stop the fighting and "extend the session". BOOM: the four are seated around the dinner table, having sukiyaki, calling each other "Dad", "Mom", Noriko and Yuka...and "Taeko". They're a family again, and I want to believe when they went to bed that night that Kumiko and Tetsuzo were committed to really being Mom and Dad, b/c it's one thing that he got his daughters back but another that she finally finds herself in a real, lasting relationship.
(in Part Two, I talk about Sono's other films, leading up to the barn-burner 愛のむき出し/Love Exposure from last year's NYAFF/Japan Cuts.)