By the end of the twentieth century, suicide in Japan had reached its highest point since the early eighties. 1998 was an unprecedented spike, seeing a 33% rate increase over the previous year, and the relatively tame decade that preceded it. While this number did dwindle ever so slightly over the course of the early 2000’s, the number of suicides in Japan was consistently over 30,000 for the remainder of the decade. Though the Japanese government introduced initiatives to inhibit the number of suicides by 2007, one thing had become alarmingly clear: this was an incomprehensible epidemic.
One film that seemed to capture the zeitgeist in its infancy was Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, premiering in late 2001, and seeing a wide release in Spring 2002. Though it’s gone on to become somewhat of a cult classic in its own right, the film is not typically considered in the same breadth as its turn-of-the-century J-Horror compatriots (Ringu; Ju-On: The Grudge; Audition), nor the hyper-violent nightmare visions (Battle Royale; Ichi the Killer) of that same period that it (admittedly) may share more similarities with.
Though Suicide Club enjoyed minor success on the film festival circuit, it proved too divisive with audiences to achieve the international notoriety that those films did. Many felt the film had an interesting premise, but failed to live up to its complete potential— losing sight of its concept somewhere around the mid-point, while failing to come together under a singular, unified vision.
It is admittedly hard to let go of such an intriguing setup— Suicide Club begins with fifty Japanese schoolgirls cheerfully leaping in front of an oncoming train, their remains splattering all over the bystanders on the platform. It remains one of the most visceral, tension-filled opening sequences in the annals of horror, and any film, from any director, would have trouble living up to such a sequence. Even as someone who spent their childhood playing on the train tracks in the woods at their grandmother’s behest, this scene still unsettles yours truly.
But Suicide Club quickly shifts gears, shifting from several different viewpoints in almost vignette style rather than adopting a central character, all while the suicide craze sweeps the nation: detectives race to find the link between a chain of human skin (seriously) found at the scene of the mass suicide, and its relation to other suicides springing up around the country; teenagers playfully discuss the news until it becomes a much more immediate reality; a computer nerd leaves the police breadcrumbs on the internet; the girlfriend of a victim uncovers the whole conspiracy; a preteen idol group overtakes the cultural landscape.
Though these threads are only tangentially related in a plot sense, they all contain sequences which build tension through seemingly mundane circumstances, until they explode into surreal, satirical horror. As a result, every scene is filled with a nightmarish queasiness— constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, expecting the worst that Sono has already promised he can give you. This is a filmmaker who refuses to hold back— whether it be the recurring shot of a woman steadfastly chopping her own finger off, or a wannabe Charles Manson croons while his underling rapes and murders a woman just off camera, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Sono is challenging his audience to hate the movie.
By the end of the film, frustration is completely understandable. Nearly none of the film’s central questions are answered, and viewers may feel like they’ve just been subject to horrible musings with no payoff. Is there a cult surrounding suicides in Japan? Why? Who is behind it all? Why are people willingly killing themselves? Conclusions are only vaguely hinted at, in a manner that seems so far removed from the eye-level realism that the film inhabits so effectively, in order to lend credence to the absurdity of the mayhem unfolding… but no denouement is ever provided. It is downright confounding.
Yet Suicide Club is a film that demands patience from its audience– for its horrors to slowly unfurl in the mind, and the understanding that Sono was never really invested in the routine machinations of plot. Instead, the film’s genius lies in its cultural critique of the generation gap: fear of youth culture and attempts to pacify it; lack of understanding based on outdated perceptions; mass media frenzies and the extrapolation of violence; fear of the internet boom. Sono was hitting on topics that remain alarmingly relevant today, even if it wasn’t immediately apparent to audiences at the time. Though the structure of the film may seem frenetic in its presentation of story elements, it is meticulous in how it unravels the grander motifs at play, relying on lingering questions to disturb you more than an open-and-shut story you can pack away.
Suicide Club was truly ahead of its time– a horror film for the Information Age that didn’t fully appreciate what it had at the time: something that relied more on haunting ideas and images than comprehensible jumps and jolts. As the decade marched on, the number of suicides in Japan was consistently over 30,000 per year for the remainder of the decade, mass media labelled misunderstood teenagers as part of a “suicide cult,” the internet lived up to its most depraved potential, and the cultural divide between youth and adults only widened. Sono obviously didn’t have a glimpse into the future, but it’s fair to say he crafted something frighteningly emblematic of it. Perhaps those visions of surrealistic horror were not so far removed from reality after all.