Noriko’s Dinner Table

Sion Sono became famous or notorious for his film Suicide Club (2002), and that film is famous or notorious for its indelible opening sequence: a line of schoolgirls, all uniformed in skirt and white blouse, hold hands and jump in front on an oncoming subway train, the impact splashes an incredible amount of blood everywhere.

The rest of the film pretends to follow a narrative about a conspiracy to make people commit suicide and the police investigation there-into. It’s really a series of disconnected scenes, finally willfully abstract and suffused with melancholy, presenting various facets of youth-society in a paranoid light: the Internet, TV, pop music, cell phones, even a requisite androgynous punk hungry for the glory of fame. Vivid, ghastly images are scatted throughout, and some shock scenes have no obvious meaning.

Sono followed this up with Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005), which is a sequel or prequel, or perhaps only a simultaneous story folded origami-like into the other narrative. Or perhaps the correct metaphor belongs to those Russian dolls with one story inside the other. In an extra on the disc, Sono explains that he was asked to write a novel based on Suicide Club and ended up writing a substantially different story, which he then filmed as the sequel.

It isn’t necessary to be familiar with the first film to follow or appreciate this one, which is a remarkable quantum leap in sustained tone and a structural tour-de-force. Its dominant tones are the sadness and confusion of its yearning, mixed-up girls, which become the sadness and confusion of the world.

Perhaps it doesn’t sound appealing to observe that this picture is two and a half hours shot on digital video, yet it’s continually fascinating and unnerving. It doesn’t resemble other Japanese horrors so much as contemporary teen dramas like Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou — the photography alternately elegant and nervous, the style fragmentary and detailed, the story now low-key, now over the top. In its quietly demented way, this is a slice-of-life, “way we live now” movie in which the way we live now is shadowed by terror and marked by a suspicion of unreality and a sense of stultified affect.

It begins with a comfortable middle-class small-town family: the local journalist dad (Ken Mitsuishi), the housewife/painter mom (Sanae Miyata), teenage Noriko (Kazue Fukiishi) and her slightly younger sister (Yuriko Yoshitaka). In a tone of restrained sentimentalism common to other Japanese films of this family genre, Noriko tells us her thoughts and narrates the story of why she ran away to Tokyo to escape suffocation and ennui, to reinvent herself in a new, true identity with a new best friend she meets on the Internet.

The new friend turns out to be Kumiko (Tsugumi), who explains that she was a “locker baby”, a baby abandoned in one of those coin-operated public lockers in train stations. This, like the rash of suicides, is evidently a cultural phenomenon or urban legend, for this was also the subject of Ryu Murakami’s novel Coin Locker Babies (which has now been made into a film).

After half an hour or so of this diary of a teenage runaway, Noriko refers casually to that famous incident that was in all the papers — the opening sequence of Suicide Club, which is replayed. At this point, anyone unfamiliar with the other movie will surely be jarred by this astonishingly gruesome scene, which nothing in this movie has prepared us for. Noriko isn’t directly involved in that incident. She’s only using it as a historical marker, the way one might say “And then 9/11 happened.” Actually, there turns out to be more to this than it seems, but already the plot has made a curious turn as Noriko discovers what her newly adopted family in Tokyo does for a living.

The film focuses in turn on various characters on parallel journeys: the sister, the father, Kumiko. Everyone ends up in Tokyo and everyone winds up masquerading under different names for different reasons, as the movie makes its point about the fluid nature of identity and how this is connected to an existential feeling of spiritual hollowness. Both films ask the characters, in so many words, if they’re connected to themselves.

One of the most remarkable elements is the narration from the various characters. It’s virtually constant for long stretches of the movie. Some screenwriting instructors make a fetish of discouraging narration as “telling, not showing” for fear that beginning writers will use it as a crutch, that it will be redundant, that they won’t learn to think visually. But of course there are many different ways to employ narration, including ways that contrast with or undermine what is being shown, and Orson Welles was perfectly right to tell interviewer Peter Bogdanovich that narration is one of the most cinematic things you can do. After all, there’s a simultaneous soundtrack and image track, which isn’t true of other art forms.

However, the narration in this movie is relentlessy, almost comically redundant, as though it’s an in-your-face parody of the Screenwriting 101 shibboleths against it, as though a glove is being thrown down. We see someone pour a cup of tea and a narrator says “I poured a cup of tea”. This is closer to the liturgical or ritualistic function of narration in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, but I think it’s real function is to insist on the subjectivity of everything.

Film is inherently objective, since we’re looking at something that’s there, and so it’s difficult for film to be a subjective medium for any sustained length of time, despite various expressionistic or avant-garde devices or the occasional point-of-view shot. The multiple narrations in this film have the effect of insisting or reminding us that everything is filtered through the memory and perceptions (or perhaps lies) of its narrators. It also creates its own claustrophobic effect, since these characters are trapped in their own subjectivity, and we’re trapped in their subjectivity, too.

After the vague, downbeat, open-ended narrative of the first film, I wasn’t expecting this one to have a coherent and satisfying resolution stressing personal growth, yet the end is surprising. But really, the less you know about this ambitious, successful movie going in, the better. Some terrible things happen, enough to qualify the picture as a stealth horror movie, but more than anything it’s a fractured (yet entirely unified) vision of the dissolution of identity, family, and morality in a society where people seem interchangeable.