SuicideCircleA plain aggravating film.  This Japanese shocker has a stunning opening sequence and a compelling first hour that seems to portend great things…which makes it all the more frustrating when SUICIDE CIRCLE loses its hold in the final half hour.

Fans of BATTLE ROYALE will recognize the sensibility at work in this 2002 film.  It’s part of what might be called the new wave of Japanese sickies, which include the aforementioned BATTLE ROYALE, VERSUS and ICHI THE KILLER.  These films all push the extreme violence envelope about as far as it can possibly be pushed.  SUICIDE CIRCLE (JISATSU CIRCLE) also has a real-life corollary in the increasing teen suicides that have plagued Japan in recent years; think of it as an Eastern answer to HEATHERS (1988).

One day in a Tokyo subway station a group of high spirited, giggling schoolgirls inexplicably walk to the edge of the subway platform, join hands and collectively throw themselves into the path of an oncoming train.  This turns out to be the first in a rash of bizarre teen suicides.  No explanations are forthcoming, although a mysterious website and popular kiddie TV program seem to have something to do with the killings, which inspire bands of “suicide clubs” looking to cash in on the headlines.  The authorities are baffled, especially when they discover a thick roll composed of stitched-together patches of flesh, and begin receiving suspicious phone calls from what sounds like a child’s voice claiming responsibility for the suicides.

It’s a depressed young woman who—!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!—finally discovers the secret: a code contained within the aforementioned kiddie TV show that leads her to a weird complex hidden within a nondescript office building, where a band of seemingly happy children await.  They usher her into a theater where they interrogate her as to whether she “knows herself” properly, and then she joins a band of young people waiting to get pieces of flesh cut out of their backs.  Later she’s let out onto the street…is she to be the next suicide?  No definite answer is forthcoming.

From the start, director Shion Sono’s filmmaking skills are never in doubt.  The film is completely absorbing, with a convincingly naturalistic (if somewhat gratuitously gory) atmosphere and some nail biting suspense, particularly in an early scene where a group of schoolchildren gather at the edge of a roof…which seems like a joke at first, and keeps us, like the onscreen characters, on edge until…(I won’t say).  Sono also has an excellent eye for telling detail: the way a mysterious phone caller continually clears his throat is curiously memorable, although the grand guignol splashes of blood that accompany each suicide are a bit much.

It’s just a shame that Sono can’t seem to sustain his control over the material.  The arrival, about an hour into the film, of a cross-dressing David Bowie wannabe who performs a tacky musical number in a retrofitted bowling alley derails the film completely.  This sequence, which seems to drag on forever, plays like a bad outtake from THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and proves so mood shattering the film never recovers…it makes me wonder if the movie’s makers had gone as crazy as the onscreen characters.

Vital Statistics

Daiei Motion Picture Co. Ltd.

Director: Shion Sono
Screenplay: Shion Soto
Cinematography: Kazuto Sato
Cast: Mai Hosho, Takashi Nomura, Rolly, Yoko Kamon, Kimiko Yo, Hideo Sako, Akaji Maro, Ryo Ishibashi, Masatoshi Nagase, Tamao Sato