Suicide Club/Suicide Circle (2001): Subtle Messages?

Suicide club (or Suicide Circle as it was known in Japan) was directed and written by Shion Sono and released in 2001. It stars Ryo Ishibashi (Audition, Brother, The Grudge) as a detective trying to find out the common thread between a wave of suicides that is sweeping across Japan. With leads provided by a female hacker called “the Bat” the police try to track down who is responsible for all the deaths.

The film opened with a large amount of notoriety and controversy due to its subject and the amount of gore depicted on-screen. It quickly became a cult favourite and spawned a sequel called Noriko’s Dinner Table which shows events prior to and after the first film. The film takes place over a six-day period starting on May 27th.

The film starts in the Shinjuku train station at platform 8. Being in the Japan the platforms are packed with people. The camera focuses on a large group of school girls all talking animatedly and entering the platform via the stairs. The girls are wearing a variety of school uniforms that indicates they are not all from the same school.

As the Express train’s approach is announced on the loud speakers on the platform, the girls stop talking and laughing and all line up on the edge of the platform. Watching the Express train as it pulls up to the station the girls link hands and chant, “A-one, and a- two, and a three!” On three they all jump en masse in front of the speeding train.

A Lawrence Welk count down… A one and a two…

In true Takashi Miike style there are gallons of blood and body parts a plenty. The train and the waiting passengers are covered in blood and it runs across the platform in a small wave. When I first saw that scene I felt that Sono was paying a sort of homage to Takashi Miike who is well-known for his over-abundant use of blood and gore in his films.

This opening scene still shocks, even though I’ve seen the film at least three times now. It is one helluva opening to a film that both mesmerises you and continually shocks you as the movie plays out.

The next suicide takes place in a quiet hospital where two young nurses are working late. After they both kill themselves, the security guard finds a white satchel with a “roll” of human skin that has been stitched together. Oddly enough the exact same thing was found at the train station. The police have found their first thread.

Running through the entire film is the popularity of songs and music videos by a group of pre-teen (12 and a half years-old according to the detectives daughter) girls who promiscuously dance and sing about love and (it seems) death. When Detective Kuroda (Ishibashi) comes home, he calls a family meeting in the dining room. As his pre-teen son and daughter come into the room, his daughter turns on the television and the pre-teen music group instantly take the point of focus with the two kids.

Ryo Ishibashi as Detective Kuroda

The group is called Dessert (although throughout the film the name changes repeatedly to Dessart and Desert, part of the problem when dealing with an Independent film company) and the group’s biggest hit at the start of the film is called Mail me. A song about love via the internet with the lyric, “If you don’t mail me, I’ll just die.”

As the film progresses, the group’s hit song changes to Jigsaw Puzzle where the girls sing that “their piece doesn’t fit anyone.” Erotic suggestion aside, the song points out that if they cannot find someone to “fit” their piece, they’ll have to go away forever.

Of course the viewer is immediately suspicious (at least this viewer was) of this little Lolita group (in the westernized sense versus the eastern sense where Lolita’s dress in pinafores and ruffles as a sort of role play) and we begin to wonder if their songs and videos are transmitting subliminal messages telling kids to kill themselves.

Pop group Dessert or Desert or Dessart…adolescent death?

The body count begins to escalate. There are a few more “group” suicides but there are also single suicides. Like the mother who chops her fingers off while cutting what looks like a bread roll. Or the chap who throws himself off a building only to hit his girlfriend accidently, injuring her before he expires on the pavement. Of course this incident becomes a plot point that will crop up later.

While the computer hacker, the Bat, is trying to find out more information about who is behind the suicides, she and her sister are taken forcefully by a group of young men who make her to tell the police that she has been kidnapped by the “Suicide Club.” The Bat was the person who discovered a website that appeared to predict how many suicides were going to occur. White dots were girls and red dots were boys. When the 54 girls threw themselves under the train at the beginning of the film, there were 54 white dots. This was the information that she passed on at the beginning of the film.

The Bat, whose real name is Kiyoko (Yôko Kamon) and her sister are taken to what appears to be a small bowling alley that is full of live things tied up in sheets. The sheets are all moving and the smaller ones are making noises like animals in distress. Kiyoko and sis meet Genesis (J-pop performer Rolly) who looks like a cross between a Glam-rocker and a visual Kei performer. He informs the girls that this is his house of pleasure and kills a couple of the smaller covered objects by stamping on them.

He then serenades the girls with a song about “death shining” and has one of his minions rape and kill a girl in another sheet. Genesis wants to be famous and wants to take the credit for motivating all the suicides in Japan. After allowing Kiyoko to start emailing the police about where she actually is, Genesis knocks her away from the keyboard so he can tell the police himself where he is.

Rolly as Genesis…Gackt as Gary Glitter?

The police arrest Genesis, but find that he is not the perpetrator behind the suicides. Detective Kuroda loses the plot and then everything else. The film ends quite ambiguously and does not answer any real questions about what has been going on.

Watching the film for the third time tonight, I could not decide if Sono was inferring that the internet was dangerous to our children or if idolizing pre-teen girl bands was bad for you.

Considering the Japanese’s predilection of fancying the pants (literally) off of school girls it doesn’t seem too far-fetched an idea. Take into account that the internet was just starting to come into its own in 2001, it also makes sense that the people in charge would distrust its wide open access; especially now that the US government alone is pushing for world-wide internet control equal to that of suppressed countries like China and Iraq.

My final analysis, if it can be called that, is that Sono wanted to show how dehumanized people have become. Whether it is through increased use of the internet or the worship of “sexualized” urchins who writhe suggestively and wink knowingly while singing about love and ending it all, Sono appears to be saying that we need to not only wake up and smell the coffee, but, we need to get in touch with ourselves as well.

Not to mention the sub-message about craving fame so much that you perform inhuman acts to attain it. Is this yet another form of de-humanization? Is Sono also warning us of the deadly lure of fame? It could well be, Suicide Club seems full of messages both subtle and not so subtle and this is above the actual message the the film seems to be relating to its characters, or the “plot message.”

Where the plot’s message appears to be that death will get you back in touch with everything and that  it is only through this finality that you are able to really live. With my interest piqued even more after a third viewing, I have put the sequel, Noriko’s Dinner Table on my wish list; just to see if it adds anything to the mix that might clarify the film’s overall message, or messages.

A definite 5 star film that should not be missed and a perfect example of just how good independent J-horror can be, check it out. Just for the record, I watched the “uncut” version which has quite a bit of added gore.

Both prequel and sequel…

Moon Child (2003) I’m Just a Teenage Vampire, Baby.

Cover of "Moon Child"

Directed by Takahisa Zeze (RaiyoDog Star),  Moon Child was co-written by Zeze, Gackt  and Kishû Izuchi. The film marks the film début of both Gackt and Hyde. It’s cast also features Tarô Yamamoto (Battle Royale, Get Up!), Ryo Ishibashi (The Grudge 2Audition) and  Susumu Terajima (Brother, Ichi the Killer).

Moon Child has two distinctions, it is the first and only feature film written by Gackt and it features not one, but two film début’s of Japanese rock stars, Gackt and Hyde. Although Gackt had been in a television short feature, Hero’s Hero in 2002.

When Moon Child opened it was savaged by critics. Even the usually more than fair Snowblood Apple, gave the film a very poor rating and pretty much disliked everything about the film.

While the film was mainly aimed at the two rock star,s fans, it is still a decent film and one that I felt had not been done before.

Moon Child opens with three children inadvertently robbing a Yakuza gang member. As the children start to die as a result, Kei (Hyde) comes to their rescue. Kei is a ‘teen’ vampire who one of the kids (Sho) had helped before the incident and Kei is returning the favour.

Several years pass and the Sho is now a young adult. His ‘gang’ comprises his brother Shinji (Susumu) and his child-hood friend Toshi (Yamamoto). These three cross paths with Son (Leehom Wang,) who is out to avenge his sister’s rape by another gang. The gang now numbers four with an ‘unofficial’ number of five with vampire Kei.

 

Given that the film opens in 2014 and that the Japanese economy has been decimated, the film could almost be prophetic. We are treated to three different time periods in the ‘gangs’ life. The first time period, deals with bonding and death.

In actual fact all three time periods deal with bonding issues and death. Not surprising when you consider that they all operate on the wrong side of the law.

The film deals with life, death, love and loyalty. Unfortunately, both Hyde and Gackt are quite obviously new to the acting field, it shows, but they do remarkably well for first timers. The other actors being more experienced to save the film to a degree. Yamamoto gives a heart wrenching performance as the ‘less than sharp’ friend who dies quite early in the film.

In fact my only complaint, was that we didn’t get to see enough of Yamamoto,  Ishibashi, or Terajima. The film tries very hard to emulate director John Woo‘s style of story telling. There are a lot of shoot-outs and wire work stunts. Unfortunately the limited budget does slightly affect these scenes.

Overall I really feel that Moon Child does not remotely deserve the hammering it initially received and still gets today. It was a sterling first effort by Gackt and Hyde. The story was different and despite the minimal characterisation of the main players you still grew attached to the main protagonists.

So despite the poor reception and the poor reviews I think that this film is a must-see. Especially is you are a Gackt or Hyde fan. To be honest the main reason I watched the film was to see Tarô Yamamoto. I had just fallen in love with his performance  in Battle Royale. I wanted to see something else he had done.

I can think of no other film that is a Gangster/Vampire film. That alone makes it worth the price of admission. The fact that they have used this as the basis of their film is commendable. That they haven’t made the film only about that is admirable. You could really call Moon Child a ‘coming of age’ film. We are allowed to see the character’s grow-up and change as and when it is necessary.

Kei the vampire is easily the films most tragic character. Trapped in a Peter Pan world not of his choosing, his world is a bit more simplistic than that of his comrades. The other members of the gang must deal, with death, revenge, betrayal and heartbreak.

But don’t watch the film expecting to see a ‘Count Dracula’ type film. The film is not about Kei. It is about how Kei sees the gang and his interaction with it.

I guess you could say it is a human interest film about a vampire and his friends.

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Brother (2000): LA Yakuza

Cover of "Brother"

Written, directed and edited by Takeshi Kitano, Brother opened to mixed reviews. Filmed in Los Angeles it was Takeshi’s first and last  attempt at breaking into the American film market. Kitano also stars in the film (as Beat Takeshi).

The film has a fine array of actors in it. Omar Epps (perhaps better known to audiences for his work on the TV program House), Ryo Ishibashi (Audition, Suicide ClubThe Grudge 2), and the usual array of Kitano regulars – Ren Ohsugi  and Susumu Terajima just to name two.

Brother is another variation of Kitano’s many films that deal with the Yakuza. This theme is prevalent in almost all his films. Most of the character’s he portrays in his films are violent, individualistic and yet still childlike. Almost all the Yakuza characters he portrays die by the end of the film.

In Brother Kitano plays Aniki Yamamoto an enforcement officer of a Yakuza gang. When his boss is killed by a rival gang, Yamamoto must merge with the new gang or die. He chooses to exile himself rather than join the gang who killed his boss. As a going away present his old gang sets him up with a forged identity and a gym bag full of money.

He travels to Los Angeles to live with his half-brother Ken (Claude Maki). On the way he bumps into Denny (Omar Epps) one of Ken’s gang members causing Denny to drop a bottle of wine. While Denny is winding himself up to attack Aniki, he picks up the broken bottle and stabs Denny in the face with it. He then punches Denny in the stomach and leaves him lying on the side walk.

When Yamamoto findly finds Ken he also finds out that Denny is his brother’s best friend. In a very short time, Denny becomes friends with Aniki and the two are practically inseparable. Throughout the film Denny and Aniki gamble against each other, with Aniki cheating where ever he can to win. They begin to bond even more.

Ken is pretty small potatoes in LA and after he has an altercation with a rival gang.  Aniki sets out to help him broaden the gang’s horizons. After Aniki single handedly kills every member of the rival gang,  they all hole up at Ken’s place expecting a reprisal from the other gang’s partners.

While they are waiting for retribution one of Aniki’s old Yakuza gang members and friend Kato (Susumu Terajima) shows up at Ken’s door  and gets a gun butt to the head from Aniki who was  expecting someone else.  Aniki tells the now prostrate Kato, “I’m at war in America too.” With Kato’s help Aniki sets in motion  plans for their little gang to grow.

Ken and his fellow gang members learn that Aniki and Kato are extremely ruthless and violent men who treat death like a joke. With Yamamoto staking out new turf for the gang to take over, and merging with other Asian gangs, Ken, Kato and Aniki become too powerful for the Mafia to ignore.

The gang become so powerful that they have an entire building for their headquarters with the top floor as the main office complete with an indoor basketball hoop. They have their own accountant and solicitor and are trying to branch out even further.

When the Mafia decide the gang has gotten too big, they start killing gang members off one at a time.

Brother is violent, the body count by the end of the film is seventy-eight. But for all it’s bloodshed, it is filled with the typical  Takeshi Kitano trademark  humour and his character’s childlike delight at the pathos he causes. Although this is not considered by many, including Takeshi himself, to be one of his better films, it is still worth watching.

Venice Film Festival-winning film director Tak...

And if you’ve never seen any of his films before, Brother is a good introduction to ‘Beat Takeshi’ and his films.

Audition (1999): Pins and Needles

Audition (film)

Made in 1999 and directed by Takashi Miike, Audition  (Ôdishon)  was Miike’s ‘break-out’ film. Already quite prolific with his output, Miike had yet to garner world-wide recognition. Audition changed all that and Miike (pronounced Meekay) became synonymous with all that is weird and wonderful in Japan.

Miike cast Ryo Ishibashi as the lead character Shigeharu Aoyama. Ryo is something of a legend in Japan. He is, in essence, Japan’s version of Mick Jagger. He was a rock star first and foremost and as he got older he branched out into acting. More successfully than Jagger, whose random foray’s into the acting world have been, mercifully, brief.

Ishibashi Ryo
Ishibashi Ryo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film opens with the death of Shigeharu’s wife. He and his son, Shigehiko both go through a period of mourning. They soon set up a routine and life marches forward.Widower Shigeharu starts getting lonely and wonders how he can find someone to be a companion.

He is very hesitant to start searching despite his now 17 year old son urging him to find someone. He explains his situation to his friend and colleague Yasuhisa Yoshikawa who is a film producer. Yasushisa decides to help his friend by setting up a ‘fake’ film audition. This, Yasushisa  explains, is the easiest way to meet and date prospective girls.

Although Shigeharu is reluctant at first, he soon gets into the swing of it and finally finds one girl who catches his eye. She is Asami Yamazaki (played brilliantly by Eihi Shiina in what was only her second film) Although Shigeharu is quite taken with Asami and is keen to build a relationship with her, Yasuhisa and Shigeharu’s personal secretary don’t like the girl. Both people urge him to slow down in his pursuit and Yasuhisa has even had the girls past investigated.

Shigeharu disregards their well meaning advice and continues pursuing Asami. But the words of caution do worry him as is evidenced by the dream he has where he introduces Asami to his dead wife. He makes up his mind to make love to Asami on a romantic weekend away and to confess his feelings for her.  Once they arrive at the hotel, Asami reveals that she was abused as a child. She also states that if Shigeharu does really love her, he can love no-one else. After sleeping together, he falls asleep. The hotel phone wakes him up, the front desk is calling to see if he will remain in the room as Asami has left.

What follows next is a knuckle biting, nerve wrecking, and cringe worthy journey. Shigeharu attempts to find Asami and when they are re-united it is not a happy event.

Audiences have for years hotly debated whether what happens after Asami and Shigeharu re-unite is a dream or not. I have my own opinion, although it took a lot of “to-and-fro-ing” to get there. The entire film is at turns sad, hopeful, uneasy, scary, uncomfortable, weird and perverse. In other words a typical Takashi Miike film.

Photo of Japanese director, Takashi Miike, at ...
Photo of Japanese director, Takashi Miike, at New York Comic Con 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If this film is not on the top 100 films to watch before you die, it should be…and it should be at least number 2.