Noriko’s Dinner Table

The film relates the story of Noriko, a seventeen year old girl who is dissatisfied with her small home town of Tokoyama (incidentally, also the home town of the director) and her family life, particularly with her strict and staid father, and decides to run away from home. She nervously gets the train to Tokyo and contacts one of the friends she had made on an internet chat site. The girl who meets her, the mysterious and somehow charismatic seeming Kumiko, takes her under her wing, and Nuriko gets caught up in her odd life, where she goes from home to home, pretending to be a family member of unhappy, lonely individuals. After a while Nuriko’s younger sister Yuka also leaves home, and both sisters end up working for this company of Kumiko’s that offers a service that they call “family rental”.

Initially a drama of emotions and family relations, Sono’s film deals with an issue that is highly current in Japan at the moment – that of inter-generational conflict in families. The children and the parents never see eye to eye, and we never meet one real happy family. The image of the dinner table is used throughout the film to portray this idea. The family that eats together stays together. And the first time we see Nuriko’s family, they are all eating, as she sits not touching her food.

Nuriko’s Dinner Table is peopled with a number of characters all made unhappy by their families, and who are driven by this to take part in extreme behaviour. We learn that Kumiko was abandoned as a baby in a left luggage locker at a train station, and this (unsurprisingly) has traumatised her for life. As a consequence she finds her existence somewhat empty, and she is hostile towards the idea of the family, and unable to engage genuinely with anyone that might be a family member. When she was twenty, a woman appeared in her life who claimed to be her mother, but Kumiko, at first playing along for the fun of it, then dismissed the mother as “unconvincing” (despite her tears and screams in reaction to this) and sneered at her.

Kumiko is highly reflective on the nature of happiness, and Sono uses a number of interesting images to convey this idea. Kumiko and her followers talk of people being divided into ‘lions’ and ‘rabbits’, saying that some people in life must play the roles that others do not want to. The members of her ‘club’, whose ‘roles’ as family members sometimes demand huge sacrifices of them, even death, see themselves as these ‘rabbits’. Kumiko also dismisses happiness as an unreal aim in life. She says of Nuriko, “She came here wanting to be happy. She’ll transcend that.” She uses the image of the circle to convey this. She tells us that there are no perfect circles in nature, and that people use compasses and thick outlines to try and make perfect circles from themselves. “But I don’t need any thick outlines.” Her website, where Nuriko originally found her, is not rich graphically but does use in its few graphics one single image – that of the circle.

Kumiko, emotionally detached to the point of emptiness, has become utterly desensitised to life, and in creating this service, and enroping poor girls in it, destroys them. She never admits that she does this ‘family rental’ to help herself. However, it is clear that she does. She uses a different toothbrush when dealing with each client – a measure utterly unnecessary, and a clear indication that she fully steps into each new identity. We also hear her thinking, “I sometimes forget that I am actually Kumiko”. Exactly the point. Furthermore, her service utterly undermines the sanctity of the family, and ends up ruining people. She is taking out her unhappiness on others. Her life has no meaning, and thus death has no meaning either. Thus she can participate in murder, ever remaining cool and unphased.

It is for her that fifty four school girls, holding hands, throw themselves in front of a train in an act of mass suicide. She convinces these girls, and the others who die in service of the club, that dying is a necessary part of their ‘role’. She had taken girls who were unhappy with their lives, and made them new ones (acting as someone else). They are fine with meeting their end, as they are doing so in their new identities.

The film raises questions about the nature of happiness and reality. The girls create new identities for themselves because they were unhappy with their old ones – but these are completely artificial. Nuriko’s parents also do something similar. Her father had always thought himself happy, but his job is an indication of his denial. He worked for a local newspaper, in which the only stories were uneventful and peaceful. And without any tragedy. He is cowardly and likes the safety of this. Just as he does not make any effort to understand his daughters and wife, content to go on believing that everyone is happy with the family. Also, once Nuriko and Yuka have left, their mother makes a painting of the family as based on a photograph taken of all four. However, the original photo showed two smiling parents, but two moody looking daughters. In the mother’s painting though, all four are beaming. The girls may have their ‘club’, but everyone in the film seeks some sort of unreality in order to escape their unhappiness.

On hearing a summary of the somewhat odd plot of this film, one might wonder if the film would work well, or even hold together. It does – and to very good effect. Sono raises intrigue by revealing the truth behind Kumiko’s club very gradually. We see the mass schoolgirl suicide fairly early in the film, but it is only explained towards the end as everything comes together. There is tension throughout as we are desperate for an explanation of this terrible act, and of the flight of the two daughters. And Sono gives it to us – through well developed emotional involvement with the characters. A four-chapter structure where we see events from the points of view of the different characters allows us to see into their heads and understand their motivations, but it also shows each character’s varying experience of the consequences of the others’ actions. We do what the father cannot – he never understands his daughters and thus he never understands the ‘club’. Another strength of the film is its mixing of genres.

As the story progresses, events become much more violent and extreme, until near the end, Nuriko’s father lashes out with a knife, causing rather a bloodbath. Kumiko becomes a more and more frightening character as we see more and more how unfeeling she is. The combination of the fun of the psychothriller genre with the interest of the drama life makes this film an interesting and satisfying thing to watch. However, this combination also serves Sono’s meaning. Nuriko’s Dinner Table starts out as realism (emotional drama) and turns into unrealism – just as the girls’ lives do. (By the end they are transformed – from Nuriko and Yuko, to Mitsuko and Yoko, to nameless.) The film is an enjoyable and compelling thriller, but also a psychological drama. And in addition – both generational conflict and suicide are contemporary issues that are very present in the public mind. Sono does not even neglect to deal with issues that are current in Japan.

Film by Sion Sono,Refrensi http://www.blisty.cz/art/24059.html

~ oleh theshieldoftheworld pada Mei 17, 2008.

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