Only in Japan it seems can a director comfortably make star-studded features side by side with gay porn videos, while nurturing a reputation as an experimental poet in his spare time. This rather remarkable career trajectory belongs to Sion Sono, whose Suicide Club stars high-profile actors Masatoshi Nagase (Stereo Future, Electric Dragon 80,000 V) and Ryo Ishibashi (Audition, Brother) but who can also be found directing DV skinflicks.
Knowing this, it is no surprise that watching Suicide Club is a special experience indeed. What to think of an opening sequence in which 54 uniformed schoolgirls commit simultaneous suicide by jumping hand-in-hand in front of a rush hour train at Shinjuku station, covering shocked commuters in geysers of blood that washes in red rivers over the concrete platform? Welcome to tonight's main attraction, don't bother buying popcorn.
A white sports bag is found on the same platform, containing a roll of sewed-together strips of human skin, all belonging to the young victims. Thinking there might be a lot more behind this event than suicide, the police move in to investigate. The case is led by a pair of straight-laced detectives; one a middle-aged family man who finds sanctuary from the horrors of his job in his home life (Ishibashi, largely reprising his performance in Audition), the other an over-the-hill bachelor (an unkempt Nagase in a deviation from his usual hipster roles).
The coppers soon find themselves in for overtime as the widely-reported suicide case gains a number of equally unexplained copycat events - school kids and respectable citizens alike start hurling themselves out of windows and off rooftops like lemmings off a cliff. As the bodies start piling up, so do the clues and the investigation centers in on a mysterious website where the suicides are announced before they happen. Somehow linked to all of this is a hugely popular manufactured pop combo of pre-adolescent girls by the name of Desert (alternatively spelled in the film as Desert, Dessert, and Dessret), whose asinine lyrics are thought to conceal hidden messages.
Suicide Club starts out as a rampant satire on fads and consumerism, with suicides portrayed as just another trend and the blood and scattered body parts as its by-products. The addition of the straight-faced police investigation sits rather awkwardly with the exaggerated tone of what's come before, providing only the first of many distractions and unfortunate decisions on the part of the director. For all its incidental impressive moments, Suicide Club remains disappointingly unstructured. Bits and pieces are scattered throughout the film (often literally, given Sono's love for lingering on gory details), but they never add up to a coherent whole. The story is peppered with a more than generous helping of red herrings, but these soon start to obscure the already muddled central intrigue (particular when they to come out of nowhere like the Rocky Horror-esque interlude halfway through).
This is a big shame, because some the underlying themes in Sono's film are interesting: the middle-aged police officers who know where to find the clues, but who are unable to get to them because they are hidden inside the bubble gum pop music and internet chat rooms which their generation doesn't understand; the representation of suicide as a superficial fad - there are seeds aplenty for a potentially great and truly confrontational satire, but the closest thing to being confrontational Suicide Club comes is when the buckets of schoolgirl blood flow in the already notorious opening scene, covering everyone and everything, the screen included.
With its combination of outrageous shocks and earnest intentions, Suicide Club could have followed in the footsteps of Audition and Battle Royale as a film to appeal to critics and cult fans alike. But with Sion Sono's confused handling of the material, it's unlikely to reprise the overseas success of either of these films. Some people may get a kick out of its portrayal of blood and gore, but even then its appeal is probably limited to shocking your friends with those opening five minutes.