NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE (2005)
Geisha of Gore Movie Review by Colleen Wanglund
Sion Sono is a Japanese director with a huge cult following, both in Japan and the English-speaking J-Horror fan base. Sono is a poet, author, actor, composer, screenwriter and filmmaker, who made his mark with such movies as SUICIDE CLUB (2001), EXTE: HAIR EXTENSIONS (2007), and last year’s hit, COLD FISH, released by Sushi Typhoon. Sono even managed to lure the great Japanese actress Masumi Miyazaki out of retirement to star in his Grand Guignol-esque STRANGE CIRCUS (2005).
Before I get into the movie, I need to give you a little background first. NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE (2005) is billed as either a prequel or sequel (depending on who you talk to) to SUICIDE CLUB. SUICIDE CLUB opens with one of the best gore scenes I’ve ever seen—54 high school girls jump in front of a moving train at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, beginning a string of mass suicides across Japan. The carnage on display is a thing of beauty. And allow me to point out that the man responsible for the special effects on SUICIDE CLUB is none other than low-budget SFX genius, Yoshihiro Nishimura. Anyway, Detective Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi) is charged with trying to find a possible cause for these suicides, which may or may not have something to do with the latest pop sensation, a group of “tweener” singers called Desert. There is also a possible link to a website that displays red and white dots—each one representing a suicide. Needless to say, this is a great horror flick and you should seek it out.
Sono himself had announced that SUICIDE CLUB was the first in a trilogy he was planning; however, to date, there have only been the two films. He wrote the book Suicide Circle: The Complete Edition (SUICIDE CIRCLE is the official Japanese title of SUICIDE CLUB) in 2002 and released a companion manga. The book became the blueprint for NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE (2005) which actually runs parallel to the events in SUICIDE CLUB.
NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE tells the story of Noriko (Kazue Fukiishi), an awkward, angst-ridden seventeen-year-old who feels isolated from, and misunderstood by, her parents and younger sister Yuka (Yuriko Yoshitaka). The family lives in the small seaside town of Toyokawa—which is Sono’s hometown–but Noriko has dreams of attending school in Tokyo. Turning to the Internet she finds a website that caters to angsty teens from all over Japan and makes “friends”. One night, a blackout hits the town and Noriko decides to quickly pack her things and run away to Tokyo. Upon her arrival in the city, she goes to an Internet café and makes contact with the site’s administrator, whose user name is UenoStation54. They agree to meet at Ueno train station the next morning. Noriko, who is now using the name Mitsuko, meets the girl whose real name is Kumiko (played by the charismatic Tsugumi). Noriko embarks on a new life with a new identity as an “actress” in a troupe of rent-a-family players.
Six months have passed with no word from Noriko, but when sister Yuka reads about the mass suicide of 54 girls, she thinks Noriko had something to do with it. Yuka finds the website where Noriko, as Mitsuko, has been leaving messages in the hopes that Yuka is reading them. Now it is Yuka’s turn to run away to Tokyo to find her sister.
Noriko and Yuka’s stoic and seemingly cold father, Tetsuzo (Ken Mitsuishi), finally begins his search for his missing children—but initially as only the reporter he is, chasing a story—and with the help of his wife. He finds clues the girls, particularly Yuka, have left for him including a story Yuka wrote that seems to mirror the family’s current circumstances. Tetsuzo only begins searching as a father after an unexpected family tragedy drives him to despair—and looking for a fresh start.
Tetsuzo delves into the mythos of the suicide club and finally finds the elusive Kumiko about a year after Noriko first left home. He sets up a meeting in a restaurant where he is confronted by other members of the organization that Kumiko and his daughters are involved with. With the help of a friend, Tetsuzo hires Kumiko and the girls (who now go by the names Mitsuko and Yoko) to be his “family”. The girls arrive and begin the role-playing, quickly realizing that the house is familiar somehow—and it should be—because Tetsuzo has gone to great lengths to recreate the family home in Toyokawa. Kumiko is sent on an errand and Tetsuzo reveals himself to his daughters, who react with fear and confusion. What has happened to the girls since leaving home? Can Tetsuzo make amends and rebuild what is left of his family? And what of the fabled suicide club he has been investigating? Does it actually exist?
Where SUICIDE CLUB was a bit frenetic and full of gore, NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE is a quiet and much more reserved film. In fact, it isn’t even really a horror film (the only spilled blood to speak of comes in the final 30 minutes of the movie, and the shot of the suicide at the train station). NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE is a deliberately paced dark family drama with some horrifying aspects to it. Sono has also managed to put forth some original ideas here. The family rental troupe is a unique concept which could be a movie all on its own. They are hired for a set amount of time to act out family scenarios for lonely Japanese people. Some include visits to the grandparents; two daughters returning home to dad after a falling out of some kind; and even a family grieving the death of their patriarch. Where it gets horrifying involves a young woman playing the hated wife of a man who wishes to see his wife dead. The young “actress” goes willingly to play her role without regard to what may happen to her—and it isn’t pretty. There is also a sort of explanation for the original mass suicide at Shinjuku Station where we see Kumiko and Noriko looking on as the 54 girls go happily to their bloody end. These two scenes open the possibility of something untoward going on, including cult-like activity. Are these young women being brainwashed? The scenes also seem to reinforce the existence of a suicide club when considered with the connection to the website. Remember, the dots represent actual suicides (red for females, white for males).
Another original piece to the film is the character of Kumiko. Abandoned in a locker at Ueno train station (where she derives her user name on the website), Kumiko was raised predominantly in group homes and, as a result, has created a fantasy background for herself. Her career choice seems to stem from an encounter with a woman claiming to be her birth mother. In a scene that is eerie and unsettling, Kumiko begins critiquing the woman’s acting skills and volunteers to teach her how to be a “proper mother”. It also calls into question Kumiko’s motives. Is she just attempting to fill the void left by the abandonment of her mother or is it something far more sinister, perhaps revenge for her lot in life? Hmmm, what is Kumiko’s Internet user name again?
The story itself is told in a non-linear style and separated into chapters, with the main characters relating their own stories through the use of voiceovers. Sono manages to keep a steady flow to the narrative, tying it all together in a final emotionally-charged sequence. I also greatly appreciate the fact that for a supposed sequel (or prequel?), there is very little connecting NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE to SUICIDE CLUB, with the exception of Sion Sono’s commentary on the suicide rate and general apathy among Japan’s young people. I am not a fan of sequels and this film doesn’t even come close to resembling one. One other aspect the two films share (and which I tend to enjoy in a lot of Asian horror films) is the lack of a complete explanation for the events involved. NORIKO gives some plausible possibilities to the events of SUICIDE CLUB, but still leaves a lot open and up to the imagination of the individual viewer. I love when movies don’t have a nice neat little ending, tying up all loose ends. I don’t always want a logical explanation. Hell, horror doesn’t need a logical explanation. The vagueness allows for the uneasiness of the film to stay with the viewer and keep them thinking.
The running time of NORIKO is about two hours and forty minutes, which is uber-long, but Sono tells such a beautiful, bizarre and compelling story that it doesn’t matter. If you like David Lynch then you’ll love Sion Sono. This movie deserves to be watched….and you don’t need to have seen SUICIDE CLUB to enjoy it.
© Copyright 2011 by Colleen Wanglund