4:46 pm Oct. 14, 2011
Japanese poet-turned-filmmaker Sion Sono is an acerbic and cynical artist whose works are all personal, complex and fiercely independent.
Most Americans who are familiar with his work know him for one of two films he directed.
If you remember the recent bygone days of the J-Horror craze, when films like The Ring and The Grudge seemed to be everywhere, you might know Sono as the guy who made Suicide Club, a freakishly smart and also seriously unnerving horror-mystery. Noriko’s Dinner Table, a companion and quasi-sequel to Suicide Club, screens this Friday night at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan.
If you don’t care about Japanese horror films, you probably know Sono as the director of Love Exposure, a four-hour epic love story about two alienated teens whose families and respective religious faiths disintegrate before they learn to become self-aware and self- reliant.
While Suicide Club is a fantastic film, it’s a difficult entry point into Sono’s anti-establishment worldview. If you ignore its daunting run-time, you’ll find that Love Exposure is a bit easier to take, if only because Sono’s story is more nuanced and hence more inviting.
Alternately, if you don’t want to make a 240-minute melodrama about Christ-like love as expressed through boners the first film you watch by a relatively unknown filmmaker, then you might want to make Noriko’s Dinner Table your entrée into Sono’s filmography. Noriko is 159 minutes long, but in it, Sono does a great job of contextualizing the corrupting kind of nihilism that afflicts most of his movies’ protagonists.
In all three of the aforementioned films, Sono presents the traditional family unit and religion in general as admirable follies, social constructs that are great in theory but almost always fail when put to the test. In Noriko’s Dinner Table, that concept is expressed through a family’s attempt to reunite after sisters Yuka and Noriko (Yuriko Yoshitaka and Kazue Fukiishi) run away from home and join a religious cult.
Cults are a minor source of fascination for Sono. The Zero Cult in Love Exposure and the “suicide club” in Noriko’s Dinner Table are extremist hybrids of family and religion. These unorthodox religious sects have both the good and bad qualities of either social institution except they have a lot more of them. A kernel of truth typically motivates these cults but after a point, they’re just as much of a dead-end solution for their members’ problems. After all, the reason the cult in Noriko’s Dinner Table is dubbed a “suicide club” is that 54 schoolgirls joined arms and threw themselves in front of an oncoming subway train. The scene, originally from Suicide Club and reproduced as a flashback in Noriko’s Dinner Table, is especially disturbing for the cartoonish speed with which a speeding train reduces a conga line full of giggling schoolgirls to a tidal wave of blood.
At the same time, the cult in Noriko’s Dinner Table is actually shown to be right about a number of things, like when one of their members cryptically explains to Tetsuzo (Ken Mitsuishi), Yuka and Noriko’s father, why he wasn’t a good parent and what will come next for him. Like the cults in Love Exposure, the suicide club in Noriko’s Dinner Table preys on a sense of alienation. The mantra-like question, “Are you connected with yourself,” that cult members ask each other is as disquieting as it is simple.
The suicide club isn’t really the focus of Noriko’s Dinner Table, however. Instead, Sono’s film is about a family and how it is affected by an organization that systematically exposes their insecurities. The events that led Yuka and Noriko to run away and become members of a cult are fairly mundane: They felt neglected and even suppressed by Tetsuzo. Noriko dispels the notion that her motives for fleeing to Tokyo were anything more complex than teen angst by describing herself as “female, 17, ditzy, stubborn, rebellious. Just a kid. That was me.”
Noriko and Yuka run off thinking that they can start over by adopting new personalities in the suicide club: Yuka becomes Yuko and Noriko becomes Mitsuko. Guided by Kumiko (Tsugumi), Yuko and Mitsuko enact elaborate role-playing scenarios where they pretend to be family members for lonely or bereaved people looking to replace their loved ones.
Therein lies the challenge that Sono sets before his protagonists: Can they reconstruct or even rebuild their lives after they’ve seen just how mistrustful of each other they are? Yuko is only copy-catting her sister, while Mitsuko genuinely believes she needs to get away from Tetsuzo to flourish as an individual. Meanwhile, Tetsuzo, recently widowed after his wife suddenly kills herself, tries to force his two children to come back to him by hatching an elaborate plan that forces Yuko and Mitsuko to act as his family members and remember who they once were.
Once Yuka become Yuko and Noriko became Mitsuko, something about these characters changed forever. Sono doesn’t pretend that his protagonists can ever really go back to who they once were. By the time Mitsuko and Yuko realize what their biological father has done to try to win them back, they realize that they don’t really want to wipe the slate clean and go back to the way things once were. Nothing can really erase the events that have transpired in the suicide club. But with a lot of determination and hope, Tetsuzo and Mitsuko can pretend that they’re happy just being together. Yuko can't.
Through this complex scenario, Sono sheds light on his characters’ problems and making them look human, and lost. If Noriko’s Dinner Table is the first Sion Sono film you see, be ready to be confused, impressed and totally drained. Sono is an artist in his prime. Do yourself a favor: Go to M.A.D. this weekend and watch the man work.