Brandon: One of the most promising trends in modern cinephile culture is the gradual return of the video rental store. We don’t yet have an equivalent here in New Orleans (outside maybe our surprisingly well-stocked library system), but where Alli & Boomer currently reside in Portland & Austin, it’s still possible to pop into a locally-owned video store and browse physical media copies of obscure & eccentric films. This was an essential part of my genre film self-education in high school & college, when film discourse online was a lot sparser & more isolated. There are plenty life-changing titles I could cite that we plucked from the Cult Movies section at Major Video or from Blockbuster’s 4 for $20 liquidation sales, but none have stuck with me quite like Sion Sono’s 2002 technophobic nightmare Suicide Club. We rented a bootleg, “unrated” copy of the film from the local Black Lodge Video store in Memphis in the early 2000s, when it was supposedly commercially unavailable in the US. There was something dangerous-feeling about renting a mysterious Japanese horror film that had been censored for extreme violence in its R-rated American cut, a kind of transgression that’s invaluable to high schoolers looking for a safe, affordable thrill that could be had through a VCR. Well over a decade later, the “unrated” cut of Suicide Club is cheaply, widely available for rent on Amazon’s streaming service. Its grimy SD quality on that platform (and on the DVD transfer available at our local library) feels much more like a disservice now than it did on a bootleg VHS, when it was appropriate to the film’s nature as mysterious contraband. That shift in context has somewhat softened some of the film’s allure as a dangerous, transgressive viewing experience, but not by much. Even without the magic of being a blind video store discovery, Suicide Club still feels like a haunting transmission from an alternate reality.
I wish I had the voracity necessary to keep up with Sion Sono’s output as a filmmaker. As formative as Suicide Club was for me as a blossoming genre film fan in the early 2000s, his 50+ credits as a filmmaker are almost too intimidating to tackle. I mostly just catch a stray movie like Tokyo Tribe or Why Don’t You Play in Hell? whenever they become conveniently available. In some ways, though, Suicide Club feels like the only film I’ll ever need from anyone. Packed with the creepy atmosphere of haunted hospital ghost stories, the glam rock excess of Velvet Goldmine, the menacing undercurrent of J-Pop & kawaii culture, multiple cults, a river of gore, and my pet favorite subject of the evils of the internet, Suicide Club feels like three or four imaginative horror scripts synthesized into one delightfully terrifying vision of modern Hell. Its story opens with 54 high school girls committing mass suicide on the tracks of a speeding commuter train, as chipper as can be. As police investigate this phenomenon, more suicides seemingly connected to the event spread, suggesting that the epidemic is the doing of a cult or a fad or a form of mass hysteria. Older, male detectives are in over their heads as they attempt to detangle this largely feminine, youthful mystery and how it relates to factors as disparate as flash art tattoos, Bowie-obsessed copycats, menacing websites of blinking dots, spirals of stitched-together strips of human skin, and the omnipresent J-Pop group Dessart. The ultimate “answer” to this mystery is that the perpetrators of the suicide mania are not a group of people at all, but rather a series of questions: “Are you connected to yourself? If you die, will you lose your connection to yourself? What’s your connection to you?” As Dessart puts in in their concluding concert, Suicide Club is “scary, it’s true, but loads of fun too,” and I’m not sure either one of those descriptors ever outweighs the other. This movie’s a little thematically messy, but it both terrifies & delights me every viewing.
Britnee, it didn’t occur to me until we were watching the film together that it shares a certain technophobic sensibility with my last Movie of the Month selection, Unfriended. While Unfriended presents the found footage nightmare of a haunted Skype & Facebook session in the 2010s, Suicide Club loosely captures the digital zeitgeist of the early 2000s: ringtones, emails, message boards, music videos, fax machines, amateur “hackers” with ridiculous usernames like The Bat, etc. It’s a much more abstract, atmospheric exploitation of the terrors of technology than Unfriended’s, which attempts to simulate exactly what it feels like to communicate online (with a vengeful ghost) in real time. I’m obviously a huge sucker for technophobic horror as a medium in general, so both approaches had their benefits to me, but I’m curious: Which version of online, digital age horror did you find scarier? Did the distance in time from the technology of the early 2000s affect that at all, as opposed to the more current depiction of online communication in Unfriended?
Britnee: The digital horror in Suicide Club was, hands-down, 100% scarier than anything in Unfriended. All the spooky digital stuff in Unfriended was mostly contained on one device (a laptop) while Suicide Club involved fax machines, cell phones, emails, DOS computer programs, etc. Since multiple devices were taken over by a mysterious evil force, I felt overwhelmed with fear because the terror was truly inescapable. Since I’ve become less familiar with the technology in Suicide Club over time, my lack of understanding only fueled the mystery of the devices. The possessed fax machine is the device that stands out the most in my mind. I can’t remember the last time I faxed anything, so my lack of understanding somehow blends with my lack of knowing what’s controlling the ultra-bulky machine, ultimately creating a major case of the willies. The one film that actually came to my mind while watching Suicide Club was actually my favorite Stephen King film, Maximum Overdrive. The devices definitely weren’t as aggressive as the ones in Maximum Overdrive (no killer soda machines), but they similarly seemed to be controlled by an inhuman force. While I’m still a little on the fence about who was in charge of the Suicide Club and making all of these phones and machines go off, I don’t think it was a human being. I’m leaning more to the culprit being a demonic ancient spirit, and that scares the pants off me.
The strangest thing about this film isn’t the roll of human flesh, mass suicides, or blood-soaked train tracks; it’s Genesis and his squad of cartoonish delinquents. The crew just didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the film. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the terror that they brought onto the screen (minus the rape scene and brutal dog killing), but the scenes set in their demented bowling alley seem like they’re from a different film altogether.
Boomer, did you feel the same way about Genesis? Was his appearance and musical number fitting for one of the bloodiest films in cinematic history?
Boomer: It’s difficult for me to say whether or not anything “fits” in this movie. Oddly enough, this movie was recommended to my roommate nearly two years ago by a friend with whom he and I have many similar interests; in fact, she thrust the DVD onto Nicky, who stuck it in the drawer under the TV, where it remained unwatched until this viewing. When it was suggested, I thought, “Oh, hey, this is like one of those nice little coincidences, like when we watched The Box the same month that Richard Kelly was hosting a viewing of Southland Tales.” I’m not sure that, if I had been watching this of my own volition, I would have been able to force myself to finish it. Not because the movie is particularly gruesome (I found the violence comedically over-the-top, with only a few moments that were truly disturbing), but because it’s tonally inconsistent in a manner for which I was unprepared. I’m no stranger to this kind of largely non-narrative storytelling that has huge shifts in concept and tone, but the thing that most took me by surprise was the fact that the film, to my sensibilities at least, plays out as a comedy for the first ten minutes or so before becoming something different. The scene at the train station is hilarious, as the overly perky music plays and 54 students step across that yellow line into danger, then leap in front of the train and everyone explodes comically. Everyone in this movie bursts like a balloon filled with blood, or like a True Blood vampire, when they die; it’s impossible to take seriously.
I have to admit that this one didn’t appeal to me personally. It had a lot of elements of other things that I like: there’s a “joyfulness of the macabre” to it that, when combined with the fact that the majority of the plot revolves around teen female students, has elements of Hausu (English title House). A growing cultural madness and the Japanese national police’s inability to predict or prevent psychotic outbursts seems to be lifted almost directly from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure while the narrative of a police officer being the only tentative connection between different viewpoints on a philosophical subject is reminiscent of the same director’s Karisuma (English title Charisma). There are also elements taken from films from the West as well: Josie and the Pussycats came out the same year this movie premiered in Japan and, although very different tonally, tackles a similar theme about susceptibility and subliminal advertising through manufactured pop music acts; further, there are several sections of the film that are scored with a strange, synth-y leitmotif that sounds almost identical to the first 5-10 seconds of the “Strip Croquet” section of the Heathers soundtrack. Even the aforementioned rape and murder in Genesis’s hideout blatantly steals one of the most iconic images from Tenebrae. It’s a mishmash of other ideas, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but simply doesn’t work for me. Which isn’t to say that there are no scenes herein that are truly inventive and haunting: the image of the students lining up on the rooftop is iconic and unsettling, and I’ve seen scenes that must have been inspired by it in both Fringe and Doctor Who. It’s particularly unnerving given the quick transition from standard teen banter to something much darker. Likewise, the hospital scene also has a lot of atmosphere. Those two scenes are almost enough to win me over, but not quite.
To circle back to your original question, the appearance of Genesis and his droogs neither fits nor doesn’t fit into this movie for me. I really like the idea of a movement that doesn’t actually exist in any kind of organized form making the general public and the police believe in a fake figurehead, then letting that figurehead be killed to create a false impression of safety. That’s one of those things that I really appreciate: a circuitous and complex plan that’s actually elegant in its simplicity once the dominoes start to fall. But here, we as members of the audience are never given enough information for that to feel right. It makes me think about the phrase “in concert”: the idea that disparate sounds, noises, ideas, and even compositions and tempos come together to create one great symphony that’s acting to achieve a single effect. This movie isn’t a symphony; it’s a box of odds and ends—a gold krugerrand, a bolo tie, a belt buckle, a preserved starfish, a guitar pick, a frayed phone charger, and a signed photo of Marina Sirtis. Does a singing birthday card fit into this eclectic collection? Yes. And no. I go back and forth on this myself a lot: how much do you really need to tell your audience for something to be narratively satisfying? For me, the only answer I can give is “more than this.” In the allegory above, if it were made clear that these were all small gifts that someone received for their birthday, then we could say, “Yes, of course a birthday card fits into this assortment.” But without that knowledge, it’s just a bunch of trinkets with no unifying rhyme or reason. That’s how this movie feels to me: there are movies that run on dream logic, and movies that run on nightmare logic, and then movies that have virtually no logic at all. That’s something that I actually really enjoy when you know from the first moment that you’re about to make a nonsensical film (the aforementioned Hausu does this, for instance), but I found myself frustrated by this movie at almost every turn.
Alli, did you find this movie scary, or funny? Was it comical or horrifying to you? Or both?
Alli: I know I’m just preaching to the choir by saying this, but horror is an interesting and complex genre with a wildly diverse variety of themes and subgenres. There’s things like Evil Dead, but there’s also Halloween. There’s slowburners like It Comes at Night or The Witch and creature flicks like The Thing. I’m saying this as someone who realized only two years ago that I even enjoy the genre and have all along, because I used to have a narrow view of what it is. I know the question wasn’t whether or not Suicide Club belongs in the horror genre category, but I want to affirm that, given how broad and varied the genre is, that this very much is a horror movie. It didn’t frighten me, but it was very unnerving. There was the gore and the body horror, and the creeping dread of all the scenes at the “hospital.” (I never quite figured out what the deal was with that building. Where were the doctors? The patients?) There was also a sense of the ridiculous that I definitely appreciated and found really funny.
I was equal parts disturbed and amused, which is what I’ve come to expect from Japanese horror after watching things like Happiness of the Katakuris and Hausu (one of my favorite movies of all time, by the way). Japanese horror just seems to be that way. The closest work I can think of to compare this to is the horror manga Uzumaki by Junji Ito. It’s all about a town plagued by spiral shapes, which, yes, sounds (and is) totally ridiculous, but it’s also so discomforting. Tonally, it blends dark, grotesque body horror with surrealist humor. I know that they’re totally different mediums, but as soon as the disgusting skin spiral is taken out of the gym bag, it immediately popped into my head. It is also told in little one-off segments that build up and up until the ending coalesces into this nihilist freak-fest. Basically, if you enjoyed Suicide Club, please go check it out and read it. It’s a masterpiece and, since Uzumaki arrived before Suicide Club, Sono’s film is a great homage.
Brandon, what did you think of the nihilist philosophy the movie ultimately ends on? I know Suicide Club tries to tie all the segments together with it, while criticizing a lot of Japanese societal values. Did you think it added a sense of unity to the picture?
Brandon: I’m not convinced Japanese societal values are what’s being questioned here. I believe the film’s ultimate target is more the disconnect of living in the modern, digital world. As Boomer describes, individual elements of the movie seem to function independently from each other without ever working “in concert” (though, I do contend that the climactic backstage pass to the Dessart concert ultimately does a satisfying job of tying everything together), which I believe was intentional, even if not wholly successful. Suicide Club has a dissociative effect for me. Even questions of what’s supposed to be funny & what’s supposed to be terrifying are disorienting in a way that catches me off-guard more than traditional horror films tend to, a sensation that turns my stomach. This feeling of disconnect is directly dealt with in the text with the suicide-inspiring line of questioning about how we are “connected” to our “selves,” which is a much stranger philosophical exploration than typical horror genre nihilism. Suicide Club isn’t necessarily positing that life is meaningless, but more that modern culture has severed all our substantial connections with life’s meaning through various artificial removes: online communication, false pop star idols, social fads, cults, etc. The unifying theory that commands the movie is that we’ve all become disconnected & disunified by the digitized modern world, which is an ambitious thought to attempt to communicate in a cheaply-produced horror film.
As deeply unpleasant as the (thankfully brief, obscured) depictions of animal & sexual abuse in the glam rock bowling alley sequence are, I do have to admit I appreciate Genesis’s jarring intrusion on the film. Genesis offers a quick glimpse at a more traditional horror film version of Suicide Club where there’s a central villain that can be blamed for the suicide epidemic, instead of the more ethereal threat of the question “Are you connected to yourself?” Like the intangible technological threat of Videodrome being described as “dangerous” precisely because “it has a philosophy,” the threat of modern digital life dissociating us from a meaningful existence is a seemingly unstoppable terror because it’s a philosophy that cannot be embodied by a physical, conquerable killer—not even Dessart. As despicable as he is as a fame-seeking media whore, I always get a big laugh out of Genesis when he declares, “I’m Charles Manson of the Information Age!” during his arrest. It’s such an empty, meaningless statement when stacked next to the existential self-connection philosophy that drives the film’s terror that it makes him look so puny & harmless, even though we’ve just witnessed him commit horrific atrocities. Genesis & his cronies can only cause so much damage; a killer philosophy has much more widespread implications.
While there’s no one physical manifestation of the killer philosophy that drives Suicide Club, the movie does often deliver that philosophy through a familiar horror movie vessel: creepy children. Spooky kids have been an easy horror movie tool dating back to classics like The Bad Seed, The Shining, The Omen, The Exorcist, Village of the Damned and the list goes on. In the 2010s they’ve even come to be something of a cliché, with most major studio horrors at the very least featuring a creepy child singing a spooky cover of a pop song in their advertising. Excepting the throat-clearing child who taunts police detectives by telephone, though, the creepy children of Suicide Club seem to break from tradition in that they’re sugary & chipper, even cute. From the adorable members of Dessart to the toddlers who hang around backstage to the infected suicide jumpers cheerfully declaring, “Hey, let’s all kill ourselves!” in their prim school uniforms, the children of Suicide Club seem distinctly different in demeanor from the creepy-children trope that’s been woven into the horror cinema fabric for decades. Britnee, do you think that youthful cheerfulness distinguishes the kids in Suicide Club enough from horror’s creepy-children cliché or do they feel unexceptional within larger tradition? What was more effective to you within the film: the traditionally creepy, throat-clearing kid who makes menacing phone calls or the smiling toddlers backstage at the Dessart concert?
Britnee: The spooky children of Suicide Club are unlike anything I’ve witnessed in horror films that involve evil kids. Their gleeful attitude towards suicide is much creepier than if they had demonic voices and evil eyes. The toddler audience at the Dessart show is the one scene of the film that continues to haunt me. Those little babies are scarier than Dessart, an all-girl pop group in charge of a suicide cult. I’m so glad that the throat-clearing phone call kid was brought up, because I just couldn’t figure out what the deal was with them. Why were they clearing their throat? Were they dying from some sort of disease or was it a demonic possession? I hate not knowing what their deal was, but that mix of innocence and evil just makes my skin crawl. The reasoning behind the coughing could be some sort of representation of the lack of understanding between adults and children, but I’m sure it’s not that deep. Coughing kids just sound spookier than non-coughing kids. The kawaii style of horror that Suicide Club brings to the table is definitely different from what you’ll find in most horror films, and I’m hoping to discover more films that follow in its footsteps.
There are many unanswered questions that I have from Suicide Club, and I know that was what the creators of the film purposefully intended. Mostly, I would love to understand what the purpose of Dessart’s “suicide club” was. Boomer, do you have any ideas as to why Dessart brainwashed kids to kill themselves? Do you think the film should have provided more background for Dessart’s role in the suicides?
Boomer: I think that the intended effect of having their role be unclear is at play. If anything, whether or not they are even aware of their role in the rash of suicides is part of the film’s mystique. Maybe I’m just (again) projecting elements of Josie and the Pussycats onto this movie, as the title characters of that film were unaware that their music was being used to subliminally affect the audience. To be honest, I think the scene in which our detective pores over their promotional shot and determines that their raised fingers are meant to spell out “suicide” using T9 text codes may be intended as yet one more piece of the farce. He’s not the brave protagonist of a conspiracy thriller tying together various ephemeral pieces of evidence into a larger whole; he’s a desperate man looking for meaning where there is none, linking unrelated events and images into an absurd (and absurdist) interpretation. This isn’t Ethan Hunt flashing back over a series of clues and realizing that he was being played all along; this is Charlie standing in front of a Wall of Crazy™ shouting “Carol! Carol!” I read the fact that the throat-clearing kid (who was my favorite part of the movie, by the way—the constancy of this interrupting noise gives his speech an unusual, discomfiting cadence, bringing to mind the unsettling nature of the Frank Booth scene in Blue Velvet) was backstage at the Dessart concert as merely one more contrived coincidence on top of all the others in the film. He’s there because he’s there, not because he’s actually connected, or because he’s pulling the strings. He’s no more the leader or instigator of the events than Genesis was; he’s just caught in the wake of the great unknowable, and perhaps nonexistent, catalyst. To me, the girls of Dessart are connected only in the sense that someone looking for meaning in randomness will find it despite the lack of any actual connections between events, the way that the human mind finds people’s faces in the knots and whorls of a piece of wood, or the way you have that one friend that believes in conspiracies even though it requires leaps in logic that are completely absurd (why would the planners of 9/11 even hide clues in old episodes of The Simpsons in the first place?).
As the earliest scenes—particularly at the hospital and the high school—were my favorites, perhaps the thing that most annoyed me were the feints toward tying things in a bow at the end. There’s no connection between the girls at the train station, the nurses at the hospital, the jumpers at the high school, or the boyfriend who leaps from a rooftop only to land directly in front of his girlfriend. Even the justification that the latter three parties heard about the first incident doesn’t hold water, as the first nurse leaps from the window before the security guard can tell her about the news report he’s just heard. With the introduction of the investigative element, the film flirts with the idea of tying all the loose ends together before we see that they are completely ineffective in their attempts to get to the heart of the matter, and the other shoe drops and we learn that it was all meaningless anyway. That’s what frustrates me: the pretense of connectivity emerging from chaos and then disappearing into nonsensical madness. Alli, do you think the film could have been improved if it had continued to shift between different scenes of seemingly-unconnected suicides without trying to have a narrative through line?
Alli: I do tend to like movies that are just short, vaguely connected vignettes like the Jarmusch works Coffee and Cigarettes and Mystery Train, so I could see Suicide Club being connected only through the suicides and Dessart. Up until the creepy child calls, I pictured it being just that. Then, with the mysterious gym bag being slid into rooms, I thought it was going to be more about a tormenting or possessing spirit. Then, it wasn’t either of those things but an ideology, which at first I thought was a weak tie-in. And I still feel like the killer line of questioning isn’t enough to make one want to die. The bizarre ending, though, really got me. There’s just something about an audience full of small children interrogating a grown woman onstage that I don’t think individual vignettes could ever do for me.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have a weird forced connection thing going on, but it feels very self-aware at the end. It tries to put the audience on trial as the children break the fourth wall with their pressing questions being delivered straight at the camera. No one in the movie knows why these people killed themselves, so the movie prompts us to fill in the blanks a little with some prompts. Are we connected to ourselves in the information age? If you die, will you lose your connection to yourself? Or can you merely say to someone “Mail Me?” What’s your connection to you in a world of television, cell phones, and the internet? Like I said before, it’s a line of questioning that’s not particularly chilling to me, but I could see a late night audience being a little shaken as they’re being spoken to.
Boomer: This one was a hard one for me to get through. Not that it exceeded my threshold for gore or viscera (I have yet to find a film that shows me I have an upper limit on that), but I found it very hard to stay awake as it hit my ceiling of tedium. As always, your mileage may vary, but I had very little to take away from this one, other than the fact that the coil of skin means the next time I eat a cinnamon roll is going to be an interesting experience.
Alli: I feel weird putting this thought out there, but that first suicide scene is now one of my favorite cinematic moments. It’s just so gross and over the top. I enjoyed every second of it.
Britnee: “Mail me. Hurry and hit the send key. Can’t you see? I’ve waited patiently.” The Dessart hit “Mail Me” has easily become one of my all-time favorite movie songs. I need to find that amazing 8-bit ringtone of “Mail Me” that went off on Mitsuko’s phone. It may have actually been her dead boyfriend’s phone (I can’t remember), but regardless of who’s phone it was, it probably made me laugh more than any other detail in this movie.
Brandon: Britnee, you mentioned that the menacing technology that haunted you most in the movie was the hospital’s fax machine, so I’d like to draw your attention to the film’s trailer. Suicide Club arrived in a very specific time for Japanese horror where the wild success of Ringu inspired a whole wave of technology-obsessed supernatural thrillers (obviously including its American remake, The Ring). As a result, the advertising for Suicide Club leans heavily into the film’s vague thematic similarities with Ringu by recreating its infamous scene of a wet-haired, ghoulish girl emerging from a VHS recording on a television through the hospital’s now-bloodied, hair-growing fax machine. If it’s a visual that was originally intended to be included in the film, I’m glad it was cut, since its similarity to the more popular (and, in my opinion, less imaginative) Ringu would’ve raised unnecessary scrutiny. As a standalone advertisement and, effectively, a short film, though, I think it’s well worth a watch.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Britnee presents Magic in the Mirror (1996)
May: Boomer presents Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
June: Alli presents Gates of Heaven (1978)
-The Swampflix Crew