Maverick Japanese director Sion Sono’s best-known film, Suicide Club (2001), opens with a statement: a jaw-dropping sequence depicting the mass suicide of 54 Japanese school girls at Shinjuku train station. Suicide Club is an extremely confrontational and deeply enigmatic film, and it is not surprising that it has been met with wildly different reactions, from adoration to disapproval and puzzlement. In an interview with 3AM Magazine, Sono called Suicide Club ‘a hate movie’, adding, ‘I hope [the] Japanese hate me… I hope almost all people hate this movie’. Sono was clearly settling scores with his homeland in the film; it is almost as if he were throwing its own destructiveness back in the face of Japanese society. Japan has a high rate of suicide, particularly among young people, and the internet has been blamed for collective suicides seemingly arranged through online chat rooms. Sono appears to be partly motivated by a desire to unsettle complacent audiences, which may go some way towards explaining his gleeful predilection for extreme gore. But here, as in the rest of his work, the violence is accompanied by humour: although you may not notice on first view, the opening scene of Suicide Club is set to a bizarrely cheerful little tune, which undercuts the impact of the orgy of death on screen.
As more mass suicides follow across Japan, the police begin a criminal investigation, with a number of clues seemingly pointing to some kind of organisation behind the deaths. White sports bags left at some of the suicide scenes contain gruesome rolls made of 10-centimetre pieces of human skin sewn together, which, the police later discover, come from the next group of suicides. A strange website consisting only of orange and white dots seems to be counting the deaths, new dots appearing just before new suicides, or so claims a mysterious hacker who goes by the nickname of ‘The Bat’. A pre-pubescent all-girl pop band called ‘Dessart’ may also have something to do with the suicides. Detective Kuroda, helped by Detective Shibusawa, follows the various trails, only to become personally affected by the phenomenon he’s investigating.
Suicide Club has been seen by many critics as a satire of pop culture and of suicide as a fad. Pop culture undoubtedly appears in a negative light in the film, not only through Dessart and the possible connection between the inane messages in their lyrics and the suicides, but also through a weird glam-punk band led by a bleached-blond, androgynous, psychotic young man who calls himself Genesis. In a bizarre Rocky Horror-style sub-plot, Genesis and his gang claim to be the Suicide Club to attract the attention of the media. A scene in which Genesis sings seems to confirm the connection between entertainment and destructiveness: as he performs, one of his henchmen rapes and kills a girl they have abducted. The Rocky Horror interlude may not be entirely successful, but this scene is another example of Sono’s gift for creating memorably nightmarish visions. Genesis and his men are holed up in an abandoned bowling alley and the people and animals they have kidnapped are squirming across the floor, each wrapped in a white sheet. The image of those whimpering, writhing forms, which we know are living beings, but can’t see, is truly disturbing. Even more so when Genesis casually stamps on one of the animals and blood seeps through as the form lies still, with the suggestion that it’s all a spectacle.
As for Dessart, the innocuous-looking pop band seems to hide clues in their lyrics and promotional posters that would appear to point to some sort of cult of death led by children. However, there is no resolution, no explanation of any kind, and the suggestion of this unlikely conspiracy is left open to interpretation at the end. More important than knowing whether the Suicide Club is really a secret society of children is the total separation and incomprehension between young people and adults that its possible existence reveals. Whatever it is that may lead young people to commit suicide, the film suggests that the adults will always be inherently unable to comprehend it.
Sono is particularly interested in secret societies and cults, which is partly to do with the fact that he joined a cult when he was younger and later became a member of a terrorist group (as he explains in the 3AM interview). His early experiences inspired his film Love Exposure (2008), which features the Catholic Church as well as a sinister religious cult. In fact, the Suicide Club could almost be a sect: the children and presumed members ask questions such as ‘Are you connected with yourself?’ and pronounce nebulous statements that would not be out of place in a new age cult. Talking about Love Exposure in the Japan Times, Sono explained: ‘I like exploring borderlines. In this film, it’s the borderlines between perversion and normality, the Catholic Church and cults.’ That statement can be applied to Suicide Club too. Sono does not simply use a religious cult as the perverted contrast to the normality of the Catholic Church, but the cult serves also to highlight the perversions in what we perceive as the norm. In the same way, the possibility of the existence of a secret society called the Suicide Club reveals the fault lines of the supposedly ‘normal’ society, notably the seemingly unbridgeable divide between youth and adults.
Suicide Club has been described as ‘muddled’ and Sono criticised for not making his satire of pop culture and denunciation of the media clear enough. But the ambiguity of the film is precisely what makes it interesting. The Suicide Club is an elusive phenomenon that cannot be attributed to any specific group of people with any certainty. It is a diffuse idea that pervades the whole of society and is not controlled by any one person or group. It’s this idea that makes the film so powerful and disturbing. The Suicide Club remains very abstract and impossible to pin down to any material reality or evidence. The website that seems to count the suicides before they happen is only a collection of coloured dots on a screen. The name of the pop band Dessart is spelt differently in Roman characters throughout the film: ‘Desert’, ‘Dessert’, etc. The police officers are unsure whether the phenomenon they are investigating is accident, suicide or murder. And when a new website appears with the aim of fighting the Suicide Club, it consists only of a revolving white circle: the counter-suicide club can be nothing but another abstract geometric pattern to combat the indefinable, insubstantial threat. The intangible nature of the Suicide Club is at the heart of the film, and it is therefore logical that there should be no final resolution.
By the end of the film, the only thing that seems clear is that the Suicide Club has introduced chaos and disorder into society. The fact that there is no rational or criminal explanation for the suicides upsets and unsettles assumptions about the nature, stability and functioning of society. In many suicidal fictions, the impulse for self-destruction stems from a loss of meaning, a disillusion with the values offered by society, and corresponds to a distrust for language (see the various spellings of ‘Dessart’), seen as a vehicle for the authorities that govern that society, and therefore perceived as corrupt. So while for one person to decide that life is meaningless is an act of nihilism that may cause some disruption to the social fabric, when a group of people decides to form a society devoted to self-destruction, it becomes an all-out attack on the values of society at large, almost an act of existential terrorism. This connection between organised self-destruction and the threat to social order is an idea that runs through fictional depictions of suicide clubs, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1882 short story ‘The Suicide Club’ to Sono’s film, via quasi-suicide clubs such as Fight Club (1999). And yet, despite their fascinating implications and subversive potential, suicide clubs remain a surprisingly rare kind of secret society in cinema, with Sono’s film one of the most formidable, labyrinthine and provocative examples.