Thursday, June 28, 2012

Suicide Club and Noriko's Dinner Table: Big Picture vs. Intimate Characters

Note: This post reveals spoiler-type points about the movies and books it discusses.

Noriko’s Dinner Table has been on my Netflix radar for a while now, and I even started watching it once before, but I gave up after I figured out it’s the sequel to a movie I hadn’t yet seen (Suicide Club). I was browsing through my Netflix Instant queue (I don't get DVDs from the right now) the other day, saw that Noriko was going to disappear at the end of June, and decided I wanted to give it another try.

Luckily, Suicide Club was available for a cheap online rental on Amazon, so I watched it last night and Noriko this afternoon. One thing that struck me is that, even though both movies look similar visually and fit together nicely, they are very different in several ways. The first is in tone: Suicide Club is a horror movie, quite gory in a few scenes and genuinely disturbing in several more; Noriko mostly sidesteps the horror tropes, and ends up feeling like more of a dysfunctional family drama.

Another major difference is how each movie tells its story: Suicide Club is much more image- and event-driven, while Noriko relies (too much, in some places) on voiceover narration. At times, it feels more like an illustrated novel than a movie.

Along with that, there’s a marked difference in how characters are used in each movie, and as a result, the scope that they try to cover. Suicide Club’s opening scene (and the sequence at the center of both movies) shows numerous Japanese high school girls lining up along the tracks at a train station. As a train pulls in, the girls (54 of them) jump onto the tracks and are killed, with accompanying explosions of blood. 

In contrast, Noriko begins in a similar location, but instead of a grisly tableau, we listen to the teenaged title character explain that she has run away to Tokyo.

As Suicide Club continues, the original mass train suicide seems to set off an epidemic, with several scenes of Japanese people (mostly young people) killing themselves, sometimes with a group, other times individually. Each soon-to-be dead character only gets a scene or two before they die, making it difficult, first, to understand why they want to die, and second, to identify with the characters on a personal level. Thus, the focus of these scenes focuses more on the phenomenon of suicide than with the characters who are dying.

Noriko, on the other hand, indulges in extended backstory sequences explaining where Noriko and her family live, and how and why she decides to leave her hometown and run away to Tokyo. She has connected with a group of girls on an online message board, and all of these girls live in the big city; thus, Noriko believes she will not be lonely if she can meet them in real life. If you pay attention, you’ll recognize that the website Noriko frequents also plays an important role in Suicide Club, but other than that, the two movies don’t feel very closely connected early on.

(SPOILERS in the next paragraph)

Gradually, we come to learn that the Noriko’s message board friends are also responsible for the mass suicide at the train station (and other events before and after it), and we see how the characters we have come to know are part of a larger movement. Suicide Club does the opposite, focusing on the events of the movement without revealing who is behind them until late in the film, and even then, it’s really hard to figure out why they are committing these acts of destruction.

The only other example I can think of where the same creator (Shion Sono wrote and directed Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table) used such different storytelling modes in the same overall work is Jose Saramago’s novels Blindness and Seeing. In Blindness, we follow a small group of individuals struggling to survive after an epidemic of blindness has left everyone (except for one character) unable to see. Seeing picks up the story after (SPOILER) humanity has regained its sight, and is working to put society back together. Most of its scenes are set in boardrooms and offices where high-powered archetypes discuss everything that has happened.

The Noriko/Blindness approach to a story is more common these days (The Hunger Games novels are another example, as are most YA novels), I think because it’s much harder to get readers and viewers to invest in a story if they don’t care about the people in it. Action movies tend to focus more on events than characters, but even then, audiences are usually given an identifiable protagonist (like Sam Witwicky in the Transformers movies).

I’m not sure which mode I prefer. I tend to fall more on the character side, but in the case of Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table, I think Suicide Club is a better movie. Not having a central character gives each scene a palpable sense of danger, because you’re never sure if a given character is going to survive his or her next scene. And in a horror movie, that’s a major asset. At the same time, though, the emotional payoff in Noriko is more immediate, first because it’s much easier to understand what’s going on, and second because we have invested a significant amount of time with the central characters.

Personally, though, I found myself more in the grip of the anything-could-happen existential crazypants of Suicide Club. It was more than the challenge of trying to piece together a coherent narrative, too; the central character void allowed me to enter the psychological space of the story in a way that I could not have if a traditional protagonist were embodying those feelings and showing me how they react to them. 

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