Is it wrong of me to want a movie like Suicide Manual to be more interesting, compelling, or (god help us) controversial than it actually is? It’s the sort of film where the story behind the film is more interesting than anything in it, and it’s all too clear the filmmakers were not bringing to the table much of their own insight or daring.
Back in 1993 there was a major stir in Japan when a fellow named Wataru Tsurumi published a book named The Complete Manual of Suicide, which was exactly what you’d think a book with that title would be: it listed a blunt assessment of the various suicide methods and their effectiveness. Many people were ostensibly worried that it might contribute to suicide in a country that has one of the highest rates for same throughout the industrialized world. The noise died down, though, but ten years later director Fukutani Osamu was allegedly inspired by the book to make an anti-suicide movie. The film has that much going for it: it’s against suicide, but without being much of anything else.
Manual gives us a guy who makes cheap pseudo-documentary movies for a low-rent production house. One of his current stories involves a group of people who made an Internet suicide pact; they sealed themselves up in a room with a charcoal brazier. A DVD that is like a video version of the suicide manual is found at the scene; the filmmaker looks into it (it’s a little too well-made for his comfort) and later links it back to a girl who was originally part of the pact but chickened out.
So far, fine. There’s any number of ways a movie about this material could be fascinating — maybe a meditation on collective guilt, or purported cowardice, or any of the dozen tangled ethical issues that come up when dealing with suicide. But then the movie veers more into conventional J-horror territory, with curses and spirits taking the place of the more thoughtful material, and the ending is an ironic twist fairly typical for low-budget productions like this.
It isn’t that I find supernatural material a problem. It’s that what they eventually come up with is nowhere nearly as interesting, or even fundamentally scary. Some people seek out a form of peer pressure (suicide contracts) as a way to give their death impulses full play. A movie about that, really about that, would be riveting.
Then again, maybe it’s not really possible to make a really confrontatory movie about the subject for a mainstream audience. Who would want to fund something that uncomfortable and depressing? Who would watch it? And so the filmmakers opted for a more conventional approach because that was all they could get away with. Fine, but there’s no small irony in that a single episode of Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent had more to say about suicide (and with tongue jammed firmly in cheek to boot) than this ninety-minute direct-to-video episode of Night Gallery. Some measure of irony is to be found in how a subject this incendiary has been turned into fodder for a sleepy little time-waster. amazon-alt=51VgjZt8juL