by Sean Gilman Retrospective

Suicide Club | Sion Sono

August 15, 2016

Suicide Club opens with a montage of the city at night: documentary realist footage of pedestrians moving through Tokyo, on and off of trains and through stations, is scored to a peppy martial beat. Then, in a dreadful instant, the familiar tropes of the city symphony turn to horror as 54 teenaged girls leap, in unison, from a subway platform and in front of an on-coming train—leading to a cataclysm of squished heads and blood-spray. This is how Sion Sono begins his first major film: after more than a decade of partially successful experiments, he fashions a unique and uneasy blend of psychological realism and exploitation. Suicide Club is a serious exploration of the psychoses of modern society, punctured by a black absurdity; it’s a delicate balancing act, interrogating humanity’s darkest urges while celebrating the joy of primal cinematic sensationalism. That opening is followed by a textbook suspense sequence: disappearing nurses and a befuddled night watchman, tension built solely with darkness and sound, as skillfully crafted as any paranormal tale. Then Sono switches gears into a detective story: a handful of police investigate a series of possibly connected suicides, including the young girls’ jump.

The cops are aided by an anonymous hacker, who hints at a website apparently connected to the deaths, and more mysterious clues are discovered. One cop becomes intrigued by a female witness, while another returns home each night to his loving family. Each of these characters—the cops, the hacker, the witness, even the nightwatchman—believe themselves to be the protagonist of a different film, and each is lead to a different conclusion about the crime (the nightwatchman encounters ghosts; the hacker stumbles into a psychotic glam gang led by an animal-murdering singer with a Manson complex; one cop fails to resolve the contradiction between work and family, while the other’s vision of himself as the hero in an offbeat romantic drama is rejected by the object of his affection). The witness comes closest to understanding what is at work here, but her investigation—involving a cryptic series of messages left by a highly popular tween girl band—doesn’t appear to lead to any kind of logical solution, a nullity reinforced by a refrain repeated by the child who may lead the cult: “There is no Suicide Club.” Taking the self-negation of Fight Club one step further: you can’t talk about it, it doesn’t even exist.

Sion Sono’s first major film…one of the great expressions of 21st Century psychosis, along with films like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After

The characters in Suicide Club are repeatedly asked what connection they have to themselves in a film whose disparate parts never quite hang together in the way we’ve been taught to expect. The most harrowing sequence in the film doesn’t even have any causal relation to the broader mystery, as another group of youths leap to their doom—this time, from the roof of a school, in a copycat suicide—and not out of any explicit act of brainwashing, or a mind-blowing koan, or demonic possession, but simply as a result of a snowballing peer pressure. What Sono’s captured here is the lunatic spirit of the age: Suicide Club is one of the great expressions of 21st Century psychosis, along with films like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After—films that actively resist the demands not just of traditional narrative or tastefulness, but that embrace the anti-rationality of the hyper-real. Virtual concepts can become tangible and malignant—and pop music will destroy, or save, us all.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.