Review © Mandi Apple, 2003.

Written and directed by Sion Sono, 2002, 99 mins. starring Ryo Ishibashi, Masatoshi Nagase, Akaji Maro, Saya Hagiwara, Mai Housyou, Takashi Nomura, Yoko Kamon, Rolly and Tamao Satô.

Suicide Circle (aka Suicide Club, aka Jisatsu Sakuru, aka Jisatsu Club) was without a doubt one of the most eagerly-awaited post-Ring 'New Wave of Japanese horror' films of 2002. Opening with a notorious sequence concerning an exceptionally bloody mass suicide of 54 schoolgirls under a Tokyo-bound train at Shinjuku station, the film has been much talked-about, analysed and discussed, not merely as an effective piece of horror entertainment, but as a deeply biting, scathing and scary commentary on the state of Japanese contemporary society. It's not an immediately accessible film, by any stretch of the imagination: the heavy complexity of the themes only appear through repeated viewings. And Suicide Club is a genuinely creepy, disturbing movie with some truly poignant moments that easily stands up to repeated viewings.

Both directed and written by Sion Sono, a man whose usual field of filmic work is the gay pornography industry, and starring two heavyweight and extremely well-respected actors (Ryo Ishibashi and Masatoshi Nagase) Suicide Circle is an odd, totally unique and unmissable addition to the field. It's also strangely only rated R-15, despite its multiple and gruesomely gory depictions of the nastiest kinds of suicide possible. Drawing influences both from the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's masterpieces of modern horror cinema such as Kaïro and Cure, and during one particularly bizarre sequence, from the Japanese equivalent of MTV and from his own directorial background, Sion Sono has created a terrifying, sinister and downright apocalyptic vision of where the country's shaky post-boom future is taking the people.

The cinematography on this movie is equally unique: I have never before seen a movie whose cinematographic style changed so radically to suit some utterly surreal and artistically envisioned scenes. It's beautifully shot, full of resonance and lovely visual compositions. Needless to say, the performances from Ryo Ishibashi (from Audition, Brother, etc) and Masatoshi Nagase (of Mystery Train, Electric Dragon 80,000 V, Party 7, Stereo Future etc) are outstanding, understated, subtle and brilliant, and the overall acting quality of the entire cast is also excellent. The score is awesomely well done, and fits the movie perfectly - fans of teeny J-pop bands ought to take note, as Sono clearly drew his characters for Dessert, the teeny band in the film, from their style of performance, and the songs are horribly, horribly catchy - in fact, I'll bet you £5 GBP that the morning after you watch this film, you will be humming the tunes ;-)

Mesmerising, profound, meaningful and deeply depressing, Suicide Circle is an absolutely incredible piece of film-making. Watch the final song by the deliciously sinister Dessert and read or listen to the words, and I guarantee you more goosebumps than Ring, Dark Water and The Eye all put together. Buy, borrow, beg or steal a copy right now - you need to see this film.


"... every day we press the buttons that execute a million commands..."

The film opens on May 26th (year unspecified, presumably in the near future) with the by-now infamous scene of a mass-suicide: 54 schoolgirls with an average age of about 15, gather together on a platform at Shinjuku station, for no apparent reason all line up and link hands as the Tokyo-bound train approaches the platform, and with a chilling chant of "A-one... and a-two... and a-three!" in perfect unison, throw themselves in front of the train. The scene of carnage and devastation is horrible: the other people waiting for the train are soaked in blood, there is chaos, one victim's leg smashes through the driver's windscreen, whilst a wheel runs right over another girl's head, whilst the entire station is thrown into total pandemonium. (Editor's note: It's entirely possible that Sono drew some influence for this scene from the dreadful and tragic events of the cult-terrorist nerve-gas attack which took place on the Tokyo subway some years ago.)

However, in the midst of all this horror, an unknown person leaves a small white sports bag on the platform, in a pool of blood. And whilst reports of this terrible scene are being frantically given out on national radio, there is a video playing by a teeny girl J-pop band called Dessert (which name changes to Dessart, Desert and Dessret continually throughout the film), which is in constant rotation on the TV as they are currently the hottest fad-obsession in the country, providing a really inappropriate counterpoint to the terrible reports coming in on the radio.

On the same day, other reports of odd cases of suicide are coming in from the city: the first is a strange case concerning two nurses on night shift at a Tokyo hospital. One nurse has completely disappeared. The other is dead from mysterious circumstances, having killed herself by jumping out of a window, in front of a security guard, who swears blind that she wasn't depressed, and seemed to have no motive for doing so - in fact, they were chatting quite happily until she said she would see him later, opened the window and simply walked out of it. And the weird thing is that another white sports bag, this time covered with bloodstains, was found at the scene of the suicide, identical to the one found in Shinjuku station...

And so a team of detectives are called in to investigate the cause of these mysterious events: the chief of police himself gets involved, as well as his top three detectives, Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi), Shibu (Masatoshi Nagase) and Murata. The police chief is convinced it's not any kind of crime, laughing off Shibu's suggestion of some kind of 'suicide cult', preferring to lay the blame on the mass media for somehow inciting the girls to do it in a copycat fashion. However, he does believe that there must be some kind of suspicious circumstances, as it is revealed that the 54 schoolgirls who jumped in front of the train came from 18 separate and disparate schools. The team is assembled to try and find not only the connection between the 54 girls, but also the connection between any strange cases of suicide which have taken place after the mass train suicide.

During their meeting with the police chief, the detectives receive a phone call relating to the incident from a computer-otaku named Kiyoko, who prefers to be known as 'The Bat', a frequent BBS-poster who has noticed a weird connection between the mass suicide and a strange website she found herself: the website contains nothing but red and white dots. The Bat tells the police that whilst checking up on it, she noticed that 54 new red dots appeared on the page, which led her to believe that it was somehow linked to the suicides, that the red dots represent women and the white dots represent men... but that the dots had appeared before the suicides had taken place, not after. She agrees to help the police with their investigation from the Net side of things, and report back her findings to them.

During the investigation of the hospital suicides, Detective Shibu finds the little white bag which mysteriously appeared in the corridor at the moment of the nurse's suicide, and takes a look inside... whereupon discovering the contents, all three policemen nearly lose their lunch. Kuroda, investigating the Shinjuku incident, also finds out that the stationmaster had found the identical bag with its identical contents on the platform. And in the police mortuary, the sinister contents are revealed to be two rolls made up of strips of human skin, stitched together in the same way, and not all from the same human either - but from two hundred different people. All of which leads Shibu, who has already formed his theory of foul play, to believe that the skin was removed from the suicide victims... before they killed themselves, as part of a weird cult ritual.

Kuroda eventually manages to get home to his family, after nearly two solid days at work. He's a lucky man: he has a happy marriage to his lovely wife Kiyomi, and two good-natured kids, an 18-year-old daughter Sakura, and a younger son, Toru. Sakura in particular seems to share the nation's obsession with Dessert, continually watching their videos over and over again on TV. Toru, on the other hand, takes a morbid interest in the weird websites that his friends have been showing him...

However, on May 28th, things take a severe turn for the worse: in a high school, another mass suicide is reported to the police. Only this time, there were no suspicious circumstances, no strange white sports bag, no spiral roll of human skin. The kids involved had merely treated the whole thing as a joke, over-enthusiastic about the much-discussed new 'fashion for suicide', and had got so carried away with the idea that they had jumped from the roof of the school building together, in identical copycat style to the Shinjuku train suicides. This is a seriously alarming piece of news for the detectives, who now also have to try and prevent the media from getting hold of the whole 'suicide club' trend and spreading it across the country, whilst still trying to uncover the mystery behind the first wave.

But to no avail, because by May 29th, the suicide rate has positively boomed. A young girl named Mitsuko is on her way home this morning, when she is suddenly hit by the falling body of her boyfriend Masa, who has just jumped from the roof, nearly ripping her ear off in the process. He also would appear to have had no motive for suicide, so the police team bring Mitsuko in for questioning, as she is an important witness. In the autopsy room, Kuroda discovers that Masa had an open wound through butterfly tattoo on his back, and surprise surprise, one of the strips of skin from the rolls fits the torn flesh perfectly. Shibu seems very taken with Mitsuko, and during a strip-search to see if she is also missing any skin, notices that she has the same butterfly tattoo on her back as Masa had... but with no skin missing.

But the cops are completely stumped by May 30th. No solid clues have led anywhere, the mysterious websites are impenetrable to them, the country is in the grip of panic and suicidal obsession... what could it be? Something on the Internet, something in the media? Add to this the out-and-out confusion of cryptic tip-off phone calls (often leading to nothing) from strange children, and delusional nutcases who want to write their names large in world history by claiming responsibility, and how the hell are the police going to be able to stop the true perpetrators before many more lives are wasted?

Whilst this is hardly a new viewpoint - many contemporary films deal with the envisioned collapse of Japanese society, including Kaïro, Battle Royale and even harking back to such anime classics as 1986's Akira, Suicide Circle approaches the theme in a completely different way - in fact, it's almost a pure antithesis of Battle Royale, in which the adults felt threatened by the youth. In this film, the kids aren't alright, and they're taking the adults to task for it in a way that no-one could possibly ever imagined would happen.

Suicide Club is more horrifying in its complex themes than any other film I've seen to date, partially because there are no supernatural forces at work (as in Cure), and even though those themes are taken to their ultimate (and therefore slightly implausible) limit, they are grounded in reality. Yes, adults do aggressively target-market toys, sweets, games and other consumables (not to mention branding) to children as young as 2. Yes, parents do leave their kids in front of the TV to keep them quiet, and turn their television sets into nannies and educators - in a recent statistic, it was proved that over 90% of Japanese pre-school children recognised the Domo-kun puppet that advertises Japan's BS2 satellite channel. Yes, kids do copycat their peers. In a truly chilling moment, the chief of police remarks explicitly, "... not a word about a 'suicide club', or kids all over Japan will be killing themselves".

Is it then any wonder that, in Sono's hellish vision, the kids feel that the adults have failed them, that their educators, their parents and their authorities (and especially the government, who appear to show no interest in the suicide epidemic of the film) have become smug, complacent, disinterested and removed from the younger generation to a degree where they need to be eliminated from society altogether? The real perpetrators of the 'suicide cult' hide in complete safety, in a world that the adults (not to mention the police in the story) will never understand: the chat rooms, the BBS's, the pop songs, the target-marketing of the advertising houses, things which the pre-teens have been born and brought up with and are indelibly imprinted on their young and highly impressionable minds.

My one criticism of this approach, however, is that Sono asks a whole lot of really hard questions, but doesn't want to commit himself to giving any answers. Simply getting rid of 5/8ths of the population in a Children of the Corn-type fashion is not a reasonable solution. It didn't work for the Nazis, and it won't work in the 21st century either. But the message is clear: something has got to change. Even the character Genesis, the self-styled 'Charlie Manson of the Information Age' (played somewhat risibly by a J-pop star named Rolly, in a laughable and baffling cross between Eddie Izzard and Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show), states flat-out that his two main aims are, firstly, to get his name in the history books, and secondly, social upheaval. If even sad old sods in spangles get to talkin' 'bout a revolution, you can guess the country isn't doing so well as you might have thought.

In a global societal mindset where faddishness has become an art-form and anorexia, lifestyling, the must-have electronic gadget, and even suicide could be presented as the latest teen fashion by media manipulation, where subliminal messaging is used every day in advertising targeted at pre-teens by giant corporations (for more in-depth information on the ghastly reality of this issue, read the fantastic book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, which provides a whole terrifying and disgusting chapter on worldwide branding and advertising practices), where the ultimate goal in life is to achieve instant fame and recognition for even the chronically talent-free, where parents and children share very little communication at all except for the language of TV, Suicide Club rings horribly true. Sono's film will bring you out of denial on these issues which affect all of us and force anyone over the age of 15 to take a really good, long look at the state of their own society... and maybe start to come up with some better answers than mass genocide.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment value: 10/10
Chills: 10/10
Violence: awash with blood and guts/10
Shock Factor: 11/10 - check out the 'pretty young mother+daikon radish+sharp knife+hand = aaargh!' scene to see what I mean
Scary Children: all of them without exception
Toe-tapping J-pop: 10/10
Eddie Izzard in an Amateur Dramatics Production of Rocky Horror: there can be only one
Litres of Tomato Ketchup: none left in any branch of Burger King from Tokyo to Kyoto


(Editor's note: the Snowblood Apple team have received an intriguing e-mail from Jay Goodman, who presented us with his brilliant theory concerning Suicide Circle:

"I got a sense that the director was complaining that Japanese culture has very little self-worth, that they have 'lost the connection to themselves', yet remain fully connected to serve the rest of the world. And if this were true, suicide would be easily accomplished, since you have little love or care for yourself.

When I discovered this, I realized the movie was not a plea for you to kill yourself, but a demand to love yourself. No wonder it is innocent children behind the plot - children who have yet to be brainwashed by society, and ironically, use the finger of the media to cleanse the adult world - the already brainwashed. Is this a revolution for a new Japan? I wonder."

We think this is probably the most insightful comment we've ever heard relating to Suicide Circle, and therefore we're posting Jay's theory to answer any questions about the deeper meanings behind the film! Thanks, Jay!

Mikhail Rickoi also emailed us this interesting theory:

As everyone knows, japaneses like foreign words, but they have some spelling limitation, so all English words receives a 'japanese spelling style', for example milk is 'Mi-ru-ku.' If the same is applied to 'Dessert', it would be heard as 'Des-aa-to'. The point is that you could apply other words that could have the same Japanese spelling, so, things like 'Desert', 'Death Ret', 'Death Heart', ' Death Art' and 'Death Threat' would do the same from the various permutations of the spelling - eg 'Dessret' would become 'Death Threat', 'Dessart' becomes 'Death Art', etc..

Many thanks to Mikhail for this fascinating thought.)

Suicide Circle Wallpaper

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2002

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Larry D Burns, 2003

Snowblood Apple Filmographies
Sion Sono
Ryo Ishibashi
Masatoshi Nagase

Links the official Suicide Club website, where you can download a very nifty trailer, with some nice pictures, a brief synopsis, cast and crew details, and of course that all-important BBS (coming soon) [Japanese only] - and here are some pictures from the film's premiere and press conference - Sono Sion's own self-built and very official website, with oodles of info and pictures about this brilliant young director and his filmmaking, with a four-part Suicide Circle sub-section - and yes, you read the page right, there are going to be not one but two Suicide Circle sequels coming soon! :-D - they ain't very happy about the film in New Zealand... - Midnight Eye, as usual, right on the money with an insightful and incisive review - recognise the flashing circle from somewhere? ;-) [Japanese BBS only] - Michael and Lawrence's excellent reviews of the movie - an interview with Sion Sono [Dutch only] - and another one here, also Dutch only - a short summary, with cast list and technical specifications - get yourself a lovely Suicide Circle poster here! - a short review, plus a really nice press photo from the film - a short review, with cast and crew details and a rating [Spanish only] - official Masatoshi Nagase website, beautifully designed with lots of features [Japanese only]

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