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Ulises [Celluloid 05.25.08] movie review horror drama

Year: 2005
Release date: Tuesday, May 27th
Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Sion Sono
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Amazon: link
Review by: Ulises Silva
Rating: 9 out of 10

I almost feel like I need to start with a disclaimer. You know, Japanese horror isn’t for anyone. For audiences preferring the more frenetic, things-jump-out-at-you narrative models of American horror, J-horror is slow, plodding, deliberate, and oftentimes convoluted and cryptic. It’s probably one of the reasons why a film like Kairo (aka The Pulse) seems to have such a mixed reaction among American viewers. For many, the film is long, slow, bizarre, and ultimately boring. For others, the film’s ominous pacing, its omnipresent sense of dread, and its deliberations on death, depression, loneliness, and other happy topics make it a real gem in the J-horror canon. I fall into the latter category of viewers. Kairo is among my favorite 10 films of all time, and it’s a film I’ll watch at least once a month in the 1 a.m. afterhours alone in my living room. Yet it’s a film I wouldn’t dare screen for my friends or even my girlfriend: I know they’d probably be bored to tears. So that’s a disclaimer I feel I need to make. I enjoy the slow, atmospheric, plodding, cryptic approach many of these great J-horror films take. Having said all that, I can go ahead and say that Noriko’s Dinner Table is a great film. But it won’t be for everyone.

Sion Sono’s Noriko’s Dinner Table is a prequel/sequel to the cult classic, Suicide Club, taking place before and after the first film’s most gruesome and iconic scene: the 54 schoolgirls jumping into the train tracks. Fans of Suicide Club, I think, will appreciate that the film’s opening mass suicide isn’t just a great hook: it has to be one of the more jarring, surreal, and grisly moments in horror cinema. So, it’s kind of fitting that Noriko’s Dinner Table tries to build its storyline around it, fleshing out some of the reasons as to why 54 schoolgirls would hold hands and happily jump in front of an oncoming train. And while Noriko’s Dinner Table is in some ways better than the original, be warned: it’s slow, it’s not a horror so much as a very violent drama, and will probably require a few viewings to understand its many layers and subtexts.

Noriko’s Dinner Table centers around Noriko, a 17-year-old girl who feels alienated from her family, her sleepy little town, and herself. And who could blame her? Her father, Tetsuzo, is a workaholic who spends his days working on pointless news articles for an inconsequential local newspaper. And her mother, Taeko, turns their sour, frowning family photos into happy, smiling family portraits, ignoring the silent despair of Noriko and her sister, Yuka. But Noriko finds companionship at a web site,, where equally alienated girls from all over Japan connect with one another. Haikyo becomes Noriko’s sanctuary, and its founding member, a girl calling herself Ueno Station 54, becomes her closest friend. And when she finally plunges ahead and runs away from home, Noriko’s only plan is to go to Tokyo and meet with Ueno Station 54.

Ueno Station 54 is Kumiko, a pretty, friendly, and energetic young woman who was born and abandoned in locker number 54 at Ueno Station (hence her screen name). Needless to say, this bit of personal history gives Kumiko a very distorted view of family. And it’s a view Noriko is immediately swept up in. Indeed, within moments of meeting her online savior, Noriko is invited to join Kumiko’s ‘family’ as they visit their grandmother. Watching Kumiko, her parents, and her kid brother interact with their grandmother, Noriko sees a glimpse of what real families are supposed to be like. She instantly decides that she’d rather pretend to be a part of their family than to be a real part of her own. Then things get weird. The family next visits ‘grandfather’, who is on his deathbed. Noriko is invited to mourn his imminent passing, and when he dies, the family weeps and wails. Kumiko, in between tears, throws the dumbfounded Noriko a quick little chuckle. And then, the dead grandfather opens his eyes, grins, and says, “the new girl is good.”

Turns out, the family Noriko is so quick to embrace as real isn’t real at all. is Kumiko’s business, a sort of prostitution ring where lonely Tokyoites can rent out people to pose as family, estranged daughters, even unfaithful spouses. Kumiko rents out her trained actors to whoever needs a daughter to scream at, a family to mourn for them, even a cheating wife to get revenge on. All it takes is a little brainwashing, a little coaching, a lot of despair, and a complete reinterpretation of what constitutes reality. Noriko, without complaint or second thought, submits to Kumiko’s version of family life, to the point where she sees her first customer—a chain-smoking, lonely, abusive father—as a real father she can actually love. Her self-alienation makes Kumiko’s mythmaking all the more potent.

Back home, six months after Noriko disappears from home, kid sister Yuka hears of the 54 schoolgirls committing suicide. Fearing that Noriko was somehow involved, she follows in her sister’s footsteps—all of them. She runs away from home to Tokyo and joins Haikyo. Once there, her own sisterhood with Noriko becomes itself a fabrication, a relationship that’s only real when a customer needs it to be.

Yuka’s departure dissolves what’s left of the family—their mother commits suicide, and father Tetsuzo finally leaves his pointless job, his empty home, and goes to Tokyo in search of his estranged daughters. His search will lead him to the truth about Suicide Club, to a new sense of purpose, and to a final, bloody version of familial reconciling.

The film is a prolonged descent into a provocative, surreal examination of its subject matter—the connections we share, not just with our families, but with ourselves. The ongoing and seldom answered question in the original Suicide Club was, “Are you connected to yourself?” It’s a riddle that most characters in the first film cannot answer. In part because I think Sono suggests the influx of Western cultural influences, and their manifestations in things like J-pop and Visual Kei, have already disconnected Japanese culture from itself. But in Noriko’s Dinner Table, the disconnect is even more profound.

Noriko, Yuka, and everyone who’s part of Haikyo aren’t just disconnected from their families (rented or otherwise); they’re thoroughly disconnected from themselves. In Noriko’s case, it’s her alienation from her own sense of self that makes her susceptible to Kumiko’s distortions. She begins as a scared, mousy girl both physically and emotionally adrift. She ends up a skilled rent-a-daughter, grounding her existence in the falsity of rented families instead the falsity of her own. Even her father’s eventual arrival and confrontation cannot jar her back; in her reworked mind, Tetsuzo is a client. A creepy one. And she can’t understand why he keeps calling her Noriko, or why he insists her fake sister, Yoko, is her real sister, Yuka.

The complete disconnect from reality and free will is, at times, horrific. In one of the film’s most haunting moments, an estranged husband hires one of Kumiko’s girls to play his cheating wife. Her role? Play the part of the wife, beg for forgiveness for her infidelity, and allow herself to be stabbed to death. And if you think the girl is at all scared or even hesitant to play the macabre role, you underestimate Kumiko’s control over reality. Because not only does the girl submit happily to her role, but Kumiko comes along for the ride, lounging away on the nuptial bed, waiting for the deed to be committed, accepting payment from the smiling, blood-soaked husband once he’s done. And if that’s not enough, in the following scene, she describes the transaction to another of her girls, and then casually informs the giddy actress that she’s next.

This is the culture of submission and alienation that leads to the mass suicides of Suicide Club. There’s a sense that, in fact, it’s not just the members and customers of Haikyo that embrace these grotesque fantasies; it’s all of Tokyo. There’s a pervasive sense of despair in this long, disjointed narrative that suggests this catastrophic self-alienation is spreading like a virus. That it is, in fact, a purging akin to Social Darwinism, and that those who are pre-selected for termination really have no choice in the matter.

The unrelentingly somber tone of the movie is carried out non-sequentially through the voiceovers of the main characters (Noriko, Yuka, Kumiko, and Tetsuzo). Make no mistake: unlike the on-and-off horror movie approach of Suicide Club (and its occasionally detour into the weird/goofy), Noriko’s Dinner Table is more like a dramatic anecdote being slowly, cryptically relayed through its main characters. The voiceover-driven narrative invites you to experience these events through hearsay, relying on you to make the connections, solve the riddles, and understand the real horrors behind Haikyo’s machinations. And, like Suicide Club, it counts on you to interpret the bloody ending. Does one character, at least, find salvation by connecting with herself? Is the failure to connect with yourself the most perverse form of suicide? Or, in the end, is it better to connect with the lies that extol us than the truths that destroy us?

Like I said, Noriko’s Dinner Table won’t be for everyone. At two and a half hours, it’s already long, and its slow, plodding pace will test some nerves. The film isn’t necessarily entertaining, but it is intriguing, and the vertiginous descent into its plot will leave a haunting image or two in your head for a while. In this sense, at least, I think it’s better than Suicide Club, whose tone was at times grim, at times bizarre, at times incoherent. Ultimately, Noriko’s Dinner Table, with its provocative discussion of alienation and reality, is carried through masterfully through its surreal, poetic narration, and should appeal to fans of Japanese cinema.

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Cyberhal (14 years ago) Reply

Interesting review. I'd be interested to see this, apart from the fact the film looks great, the japanese have a different take on suicide than the West


Griffin (14 years ago) Reply

Noriko's Dinner Table may be my favourite film ever, if not, it's very close.


R (14 years ago) Reply

I saw the movie before reading this review and I liked the movie a lot. Since I don't know the Japanese culture that well, there were some things I did not understand, e.g. the details about he Suicidal Club. Reading this review was very helpful. My husband and I watched the movie with a great interest and we were not bored at all. Our friends were.


Dylan (14 years ago) Reply

My wife & I watched Noriko's Dinner Table last night. We were expecting a low budget slasher, perhaps a cannibalism oriented horror flick. My wife was disappointed that it wasn't. I was intrigued by the sophistication and the interesting messages about what people do to each other in their individual pursuit of happiness and in projecting their ideals upon others.


caroline (11 years ago) Reply

It's one of the most outstanding film I've ever watches besides another Japanese film that bring out issue on after death make up artist. Love the way it is presented and how they relate it so close into our daily life and our thought.


Tayane (10 years ago) Reply

made a lot of sense. But, think about this, what if you added a little ctonent? I mean, I dont want to tell you how to run your blog, but what if you added something to maybe get peoples attention? Just like a video or a picture or two to get people excited about what youve got to say. In my opinion, it would make your blog come to life a little bit.


ML (10 years ago) Reply

one of the most beautiful and moving films i've seen.

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