June 30, 2009
It may seem like Sion Sono’s quiet, meditative family drama Noriko’s Dinner Table is restrained; compared to Suicide Club’s flashy, messy, head-on approach in particular. But Noriko’s, billed as the “prequel” to Club, is actually utterly self-indulgent. Take a look at the 159-minute runtime, for instance, or the way in which Sono completely basks in his own pet concept—the suicide club website and cult—like a grad student writing his thesis on it. It seems he, probably due at least in part to the success of Club, had full creative reign with no one forcing him to cut or reshuffle anything. Naturally, this is both good and bad.
The only thing linking this film to its notorious J-horror predecessor is the mythos of the “club” itself—so let’s get it out of the way right now. The website (red dots for female suicide victims, white for males) and the schoolgirl train-splatter incident are both further explored, but none of the previous characters return (that I can recall, but it has been awhile since I saw Club). Luckily, that includes the deranged glam-rock dude from the bowling alley, who is nowhere to be seen.
Instead our protagonists are the titular Noriko, a withdrawn and repressed high school student who longs to attend college in Tokyo, and her father, mother, and sister Yuka. They lead a seemingly peaceful, carefree existence in a small seaside village that most of us would envy. However, her father’s disapproval of her big-city plans soon leads Noriko to seek refuge online—you can guess which website—with other girls her age. Before long, she packs up and runs away, planning to stay with the leader of the bunch, known by the online handle “Ueno Station 54” (played by the awfully charismatic Tsugumi).
From here, the narrative jumps between Noriko’s perspective, her sister Yuka’s, and then her father’s. Noriko and her sister become actors for a hire-a-family business (like prostitutes without the sex, lonely clients hire them to act out vital roles missing from their lives), and their father tries to track them down and prove he’s capable of understanding them—an ever-elusive goal for the parents of teenage daughters, I’m sure.
More often than not, the film hits all the right marks tonally. The inner monologues of the characters are pretentious at times, but usually touching and poignant. The mise-en-scene is fantastic, with each of the three perspectives strewn together seamlessly. This allows their stories to make up a fluid whole, instead of a fractured puzzle. It only loses steam a bit during the final act, which is the only portion of the film that could have benefitted from some tighter editing. There’s a lot of crying, confessions, and confrontation—yet the emotional payoff seems to be lacking. Still, it’s completely fitting that—like the baffling behaviour of some of its protagonists—Noriko’s Dinner Table offers no easy solutions.