This is a really promising movie from the start, and though I think it has more than its share of problems, it ultimately left me with the sense of confounded, frustrated intrigue that makes me want to write about something. The basic story is of a sudden rash of suicides in Tokyo. It’s a serious topic, and the parallels to real life are obvious – Japan has the second-highest suicide rates in the world, and events very similar to that depicted here are common. These are on a huge, ludicrous scale in line with Japanese horror films, though – fifty girls at a time throw themselves in front of a train in the film’s opening sequence.
That sequence shows off one of the great choices made, the cinema verite camerawork that blurs the line between documentary and absurd horror. This isn’t the gimmicky handheld style spreading in movies like Cloverfield, but a much more neutral camera eye that, with its slight graininess and locked-off view conveys a different kind of “realness.” It makes the opening gut-wrenching, as it sets up the girls as strikingly everyday. Then it goes into splatter mode, drenching the train in corn-syrup blood. It’s a dichotomy – between the real and the absurd, the filmic and the lived – the movie goes on to play with quite compellingly.
The following hour does a great job of offering a view of what is, in the film’s own parlance, a jigsaw world, where the suicides are suggested as, at least possibly, having causes both concrete and more metaphorical. No punches are pulled in making this a story about Japan’s ongoing social malaise, as everyone in the movie guzzles crap pop-culture in the form of the preteen girl-group Dessert, people sadly hunt for companionship on the internet, kids follow fads without knowing the line between a joke and a commitment, and everyone on the trains looks like they’re about to kill themselves just on principle. There’s a parallel ambiguity to the detective story that pins it all down. Are these true suicides? Is something supernatural going on? A crazed teen fad?
All of this richness is what makes the film’s one hour mark at first galling, then rewarding, as it trots out a barely-developed, malevolent “villain” to take the fall for the ongoing rash of deaths. At first it seems unbelievably ham-handed, a narrative dues ex machina that explains far too much of what has come before. But soon, we realize that the film itself is making this exact point, as it spins back out into chaos and despair. We are quite bluntly being told that there are no easy answers, that, just maybe, the problems being described are far deeper than any mass murderer.
One thing that bugs the shit out of me with this movie, and with a lot of Japanese movies, is that even though one of the film’s themes is the manipulative pull of pop music, it uses some of the most saccharine film music, at some of the most obvious and pappy moments, of any film I have ever seen. It’s so ham-handed it’s almost like Godard’s satire of film music (I forget the name of that one). Further, the film’s closing trades in a few too many of the tropes of Japanese horror, as in its use of children and a descent into surrealism.
It does highlight particular social problems, and ends with a truly unfortunate ‘message’ moment about being ‘connected to yourself,’ as if, despite his earlier trick, the writer didn’t have the will to leave things truly unresolved. But it does retain a (to me) certain irresolvable status, a refusal to settle clearly on any ‘villain’ that reminded me a great deal of the recent “Dark Knight.” Perhaps ironically, while the film from supposedly individualistic America has a great deal to say about the role of law in society, the film from supposedly ‘collectivist’ Japan seems to locate all of the problems it depicts in problems of individual choice, behavior, and psychological orientation. This emphasis may ultimately suggest an exacerbation of the very problems of atomization and detachment that the film seems to bemoan.