Noriko’s Dinner Table (Austin Film Festival ’06)

Noriko’s Dinner Table is a semi-sequel to The Suicide Club, and although it was listed under the horror heading at the festival and in most reviews, it contains virtually no semblance of the horror genre except for a sizable amount of blood.
By  · Published on November 5th, 2006

Release Date: TBA

Looking in on Japan is a difficult thing to do for American audiences with limited first-hand knowledge of an ancient culture that has survived into modern times. Interestingly enough, this culture harbors some similar values: respect, honesty, and the old-fashioned family dinner – a quality of life that Writer/Director Sion Sono exploits to the fullest degree in this brilliant dramatic flick. Noriko’s Dinner Table is a semi-sequel to The Suicide Club, and although it was listed under the horror heading at the festival and in most reviews, it contains virtually no semblance of the horror genre except for a sizable amount of blood.

Noriko (Kazue Fukiishi) is bored with her life – her popular sister (Yuriko Yoshitaka), her inattentive father (Ken Mitsuishi) and all-but-absent mother (Sanae Miyata). Seeking refuge on the internet, she stumbles upon a website chat room decorated by ominous red and white dots. Touching base with Ueno54 (Tsugumi), its moderator, she makes her escape to Tokyo to meet up. What follows is a series of incredibly disturbing events that will have audiences questioning the nature of self, family and relationships. Immediately upon meeting Ueno54 aka Kumiko, Noriko dons a new name, meets Kumiko’s family and is rushed off to meet two grandmothers and a grandfather. She is treated like a close relative at every house.

What’s brilliant about Noriko’s Dinner Table is its ability to concern the audience with deeper questions by using psychotic characters and blood lust. Kumiko, as it turns out, runs a company that lends extremely dedicated actors (to the point that they’d commit suicide for a part) to lonely people who want to experience a family – old people who feel neglected, a man who’s lost both his daughters. Once Noriko enters this world, reality and fantasy are blended. After all, isn’t the concept of being a good father, mother or child a simple matter of playing a role?

Once Noriko’s sister Yuka runs off to join her, their father begins a desperate search for them which leads to one of the oddest confrontations in film history – a father playing a client who has hired his nihilist daughters to play his children so that he can play a father. It also acts as probably the most unsettling denouements on record. You will not feel at ease by the end of this movie.

The acting is superb especially from veteran Ken Mitsuihi and the young, but relatively experienced Kazue Fukiishi. As usual with Japanese film, the cinematography his handled with pain-staking detail and the result is a frame of a man covered in blood being as beautiful as the sunset that was shown moments before. Also, as most Japanese horror directors don’t shy away from the elongated quiet scenes of contemplation that will ultimately hit the cutting room floor for the Americanized version starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sion Sono doesn’t shy away from the elongated heavy breathing moments that follow a blood splattering knife fight.

The only problem with Noriko is the length. At a gruesome 159 minutes, some of it laden with faux-meaningful art shots, an American audience might get a bit bored at times. So sue it for being good, right? Oddly enough, it could be recut to a strict two hours and almost nothing would be lost from the story. The additional thirty-nine minutes spread throughout seem superfluous to the tale-telling or the character development.

Despite that, Noriko’s Dinner Table is a solid, engaging picture that is as twisted as they come. So often we hear comments about loving family members but not having to like them, blood being thicker than water and family pride being a strong link in the social chain. Noriko challenges that, asking whether we can throw away an old life in exchange for a new one. For Noriko’s mentor Kumiko, it’s about taking on the roles in life no one else wants, being anyone that she’s paid to be in order to lose her own identity. As the credits role, this film asks its audience, what will it take for you to start playing the role of yourself? If that sounds like an odd question to end with, it should, because this is an odd (and brilliant) film. Plus, if you think Noriko sounds creepy, you should see what the red and white dots on Kumiko’s website represent.

The Upside: Horror seems to blend with so many elements – politics, slapstick, satire – but Noriko’s Dinner Table accomplishes something different, a horror film blended with social philosophy that applies to all who watch it. Instead of taking on taboo, it challenges the most well-rooted concepts in the social hierarchy, and it does is amazingly well.

The Downside: A bit too long, a bit too many long silences, and you might never get to see it unless its released as The Grudge IV: Dinner Time.

On the Side: This is the second film in a trilogy planned by writer Sion Sono.

Final Grade: B+

Related Technorati Tags: Horror, J-Horror, Japanese, Austin Film Festival

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