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Examining Japan's suicidal tendencies

July 06, 2007|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

A preoccupation with suicide seems embedded in the Japanese psyche and there's always been a darkly bizarre strain in Japanese cinema. Sion Sono's "Noriko's Dinner Table" embraces these tendencies with gusto and striking originality. Just one minute short of three hours, the film is a boldly fragmented and tantalizing saga, told from five different points of view, about what happens to a family after it has blown apart.

The result is a bravura, high-risk work that raises an array of provocative questions about parent-child relationships, the treacherous quest for happiness and fulfillment, the complex interplay between reality and make-believe and the mutability of identity. "Noriko's Dinner Table" is a tantalizing mystery tale, an acute social commentary on the world of the Internet and cult mentality -- and an outrageous dark comedy. It's not a film for the impatient but rather for those who enjoy challenging, high-risk artistic ventures.

As is so often the case, the Shimbara family of the idyllic town of Toyokawa seems perfectly ordinary. The father, Tetsuzo (Ken Mitsuishi), loves the peaceful atmosphere of the place and enjoys his job as photographer-reporter for a local paper, covering mundane events and activities. In his obtuseness he doesn't realize that his 17-year-old daughter, Noriko (Kazue Fukiishi), and her younger sister, Yuka (Yuriko Yoshitaka), are dying of boredom -- to the extent that Noriko runs away to Tokyo, with Yuka soon to follow; their mother so blames herself for their departure that she commits suicide.

Noriko has, in fact, become obsessed with a website where she meets other teen girls and has headed to Tokyo to meet its moderator, the enigmatic and sinister Kumiko (Tsugumi) who enlists Noriko and later Yuka in her unique service of providing customers willing to pay "actors" to play characters who will ease the loneliness of their lives. Kumiko is so convinced of the futility of the pursuit of happiness that she forces her employees to watch the climactic sequence of Sono's 2002 film "Suicide Club" as a lesson in what that pursuit leads to. Salvation, she believes, lies in acting: Play a role -- even one that can get you killed.

The distraught Tetsuzo's two-year quest to find his missing daughters culminates in a calamitous, paradoxical climactic sequence that invites the viewer to consider the consequences of life's choices, the responsibilities one has to others and the finiteness of human nature. Through a barrage of fragmented images of lurid events, escalating hysteria and sheer madness, Sono holds up a cracked mirror to modern life, inspiring the viewer to think with unexpected seriousness about what it means to be a human being.

"Noriko's Dinner Table." Unrated. Some strong violence. Running time: 2 hours, 59 minutes. Exclusively at the Regent Showcase, 614 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 934-2944.

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