Noriko’s Dinner Table
- Original title
- Noriko no Shokutaku
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 159 minutes
- 21 August 2007
by Tom Mes
Once upon a time, Sion Sono was something of a lingering ghostly presence within contemporary Japanese film, rather than an actual filmmaker. Director of one of the great unseen PIA Grand Prize winners, Bicycle Sighs (Jitensha Toiki, 1990), experimental poet, legendary drinker, man behind notorious abandoned projects like the five-hour odyssey through the foreign tribes on the capital's mean streets Bad Film, and subject of strange rumours such as his alleged involvement in gay porn; Sono seemed to be doing everything except making and releasing films.
Then along came Suicide Club and its hellish visions of mass suicide at Shinjuku station. Suddenly his name was on everyone's lips again. The runaway success of the film signaled a change in the career of Sono, who has since been beavering away, cranking out film after film as if making up for lost time. In the space of the past year and a half, he delivered Strange Circus (Kimyo no Circus, 2005) - a twisted revival of the ero-guro tradition; Hazard (2005) - a shot-in-NY mixture of gangster film, autobiography and filmed theatre; Into a Dream (Yume no naka e, 2006) - an extended DV-shot head trip about a failed actor's fear of women; Exte: Hair Extensions (Exte, 2007) - a mainstream J-horror outing; and Noriko's Dinner Table - a sequel of sorts to the film that re-launched his career. The man once infamous for rarely being sober has clearly cleaned up his act and focused himself. The films are still hit-and-miss - and sometimes hit-and-miss within the same film - but that's only normal when he's churning them out at a pace like this. The metamorphosis is, at any rate, most remarkable.
Noriko's Dinner Table surely ranks as one of the best among this recent wave. Presented as a prequel, though actually more of a wrap-around spin-off, to Suicide Club, it is going to confuse quite a few fans just for its sheer restraint. The director commands respect for making the follow-up to his satirical splatter freak-out a subdued, rhythmic, two-and-a-half hour family drama with surrealistic overtones.
Noriko (Fukiishi) is the elder daughter of a small-town family. It's a typical unit - mom, dad, two daughters, and a major communication problem. Noriko wants to go study in Tokyo, but Dad (Mitsuishi) won't let her. So she runs away, finding a literal surrogate family through her chat room pal Kumiko (the magnificent Tsugumi, also seen in Exte: Hair Extensions), who runs a rent-a-family business where anyone can hire a couple of grandchildren for an afternoon tea, a wife for a walk in the park, or even a cheating girlfriend to kill.
The chat room where they first made their acquaintance is, of course, the very forum that pushed dozens of kids to throw themselves in front of speeding trains and off rooftops in Suicide Club. The death of the 54 schoolgirls - referred to here simply as "That" - is revisited here, with the film's leaps in time leaving the viewer in the dark over whether or not Noriko was one of the victims. Indeed, this very insecurity is what prompts her younger sister Yuka (Yoshitaka) to log on and then depart in search of Noriko, eventually also winding up in Kumiko's clutches and leaving a pair of heart-broken, flabbergasted parents weeping over the dinner table.
Even at a 159-minute running time, Noriko's Dinner Table remains remarkably engaging and watchable, thanks in large part to the presence of Tsugumi and the great Ken Mitsuishi, as well as a narrative structure that employs different, and sometimes contradictory points-of-view, switching between the four main characters, and eventually settling on the father's obsessive search for his daughters. Sono's swerves into surrealism and violence are also thoroughly integrated into the narrative, where they came across more as potshots in Suicide Club.
However, the biggest surprise is that Noriko's Dinner Table stands firmly on its own two legs. The connection with its cult-favourite predecessor will help this find an audience, but never weighs very heavily on the goings-on. In fact, it looks suspiciously like a somewhat artificial attempt to give this non-too commercially formatted film more audience appeal. Certainly, it functions perfectly fine as a sort-of sequel, further refining the exploration of the rupture of the family unit, but if Sono had edited out all the references to Suicide Club, Noriko's Dinner Table would have functioned very well in its own right - and been a good deal shorter in the process. This most likely would also have made more apparent that the real thematic and stylistic cousins of this film are not Suicide Club, but Strange Circus and Into a Dream. Regardless, Noriko's Dinner Table remains, warts and all, one of the most engaging of Sion Sono's recent spate of creations.