Who are you?
Summer 2010 Film Series
Number 2: Cure (Kyua, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 110 mins, 1997, Japanese)
Number 3: Suicide Club (Jisatsu Sakuru, dir. Sion Sino, 99 mins, 2002, Japanese)
The Japanese seems to have a way of saying a whole lot without actually saying much. Take the haiku, for example, a few words, a casual observation, but coded within the simplicity is a complexity of texture, dissonance, and emotion. Or take the films of Yasujiro Ozu, arguably one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers, where a couple’s casual, simple dinner of green tea over rice suggests a great understanding between them. Maybe this obsession with not saying much comes from Zen Buddhism, where cryptic aphorisms and anecdotes confer great knowledge upon those who take the time to ponder them.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure and Sion Sino’s Suicide Club are successors of that very tradition. Both films disguise themselves as straightforward and typical mysteries that both hinge on a “hook” to draw the viewer in. In Cure, there have been a spate of random killings, where the victim is slashes across the neck in an “X” pattern. The perpetrator is always found nearby, and is always different. Although the culprits confess to the murder, they are unable to explain adequately their motives for the brutal, bizarre murders. Sino’s Suicide Club has a similar strange premise: gangs of schoolchildren, a lot of them girls, take to committing mass suicide. In the opening scene, close to 50 schoolgirls hold hands and leap in front of a speeding bullet train, seemingly for no apparent reason. What follows is an investigation into this phenomenon as more and more teenagers take to committing mass suicide.
In both Cure and Suicide Club, the initial premise is eventually abandoned. In Cure, a strange man named Mamiya appears to be the link between all the murders. Mamiya is an enigmatic young man, seemingly without memory and identity, and he always asks his victims, “Who are you?” “Tell me about you.” The culprit is no mystery, the detective and protagonist, encounters him early and the film progresses from there on as a battle of wills between the two. Mamiya is found out to be a master hypnotist while the detective is seemingly invulnerable to the hypnotism. As the police psychiatrist says, even under hypnotism, no one can be made to do what they would normally not do in real life. So the question then becomes, are we all killers? These ‘normal’ people commit acts of brutal slaughter and yet, after the event, they seem to think that it needed to be done, that it was even natural. Mamiya’s power lies not just in his skill at hypnotism, but the blank slate that he presents himself as. A man without a past, without a history, he is connected to no one and nothing. In conversation, he has nothing to offer, only everything to take. His easy questions force his victims to consider themselves against this blank slate, who really are they? What defines their existence? Although we never really find out, why or how Mamiya exactly convinces them to commit murder, the question becomes unimportant. Kurosawa’s direction, and masterful editing, brings together a mechanised, indifferent world with that of the individual. The film, then, acts as a comment on Japanese society, and on our own globalised society too. There is no more room for the individual, everything is generic, everything is mass-marketed, even identity. To figure out who you are, something as drastic, as brutal as murder is needed to dislodge one from the banality of what society has become. Through the incongruency of image and sound, Kurosawa creates a world where everything is at odds, everything seems out of balance and strange. Mamiya merely facilitates the transformation, he doesn’t seem to bring it about, for no one can be forced to do anything, even under hypnotism. There is no violence to Mamiya, he appears harmless and free-floating, an enigma of a man. The film leaves us with the troubling hypothesis that in a society like ours, where individual identity is subsumed by the collective, it is not difficult to understand the lengths that people will go to in order to rediscover, for themselves, who they really are.
As Suicide Club progresses, the plot becomes increasingly murkier. More and more levels are added, to the point of distraction. Suicide Club is not as polished as Cure, it is rough and often loses its point. But the central theme, that of dislocation, makes itself felt as well. There is a strange boy who often calls the detectives, a boy with a cough that becomes more and more irritating as he talks. This is probably deliberate, the director wishes for us to feel irritation. It is meant to dislodge us, just like the boy is dislodging teenagers from their own lives. He too asks a question, “Are you connected to yourself?” To the detectives he poses this question, “I know you are connected to your family, to your children, to your wife, but are you connected to yourself?” Once again, the question becomes one of identity. While Cure seems to blame society, in Suicide Club, it is pop culture and television that seems to be at fault. There are many subplots that don’t serve much purpose, except distraction, but the theme of connection is threaded into each of them. The detectives find a long roll of skin at the scene of the suicides, the roll composed of squares of skin from different people, most of them the ones who just died. In death, this is their connection to each other. Even as they leap off buildings and in front of trains, the teenagers hold hands, it is an act of a group, not an individual. In this way, Suicide Club is often at odds with Cure. While Cure desires an individual, Suicide Club wishes for a group identity, a connection to each other that is often lost in the mindless drone of the television and the mass-marketed media.
Both films end on inconclusive notes, there is no neat wrapping up of the plot. There are plot holes, loops and subplots that are wholly abandoned, more in the case of Suicide Club than Cure. While Cure might be a technically and philosophically superior film, Suicide Club holds its own, despite often being dismissed as mindless gore-fest. I am certain that these films will make much more sense to a Japanese, for they seem to tackle very distinctly Japanese topics. It would be a sin to compare these films to the work of Ozu, for Ozu is in a class of his own, and there will never be another like Ozu, but in terms to Japan-ness, they appear similar.
In these times of self-effacement, identity becomes a more and more elusive thing. Our identity is often dictated, through society, through television. This is who you are. This is what you are. Introspection is no longer available to the mass of people, as they hurry from job to job, from house to house, car to car, furniture to furniture. In this era of mass consumption, there is barely any time to wonder who one is. The question has become moot. No one cares. No one cares because it is easy to pick and choose. The internet provides a convenient facade, anyone can become anyone else, a man can pretend to be a woman, a woman can pretend to be a little boy, there is no limit. And in case we are too lazy to even pick and choose on the internet, there is always the television. Buy a Mac and you gain membership into an exclusive club of Apple users. Wear skinny jeans and you are a hipster. Wear this and you become that, wear that and you become this. Identity comes in packages now. It is more and more difficult to figure out who you really are. Who’s to say who is really who.