Noriko's Dinner Table (Noriko no shokutaku) (2005)The family that eats together stays together.
The year is 2001 and Noriko, a seventeen year old runaway, arrives as a naïve small town girl in the big city of Tokyo. Toyokawa, otherwise known as the boondocks where she comes from, had began to feel like a trap, and she was deeply unhappy with her family – her early attempts at rebellion had more or less gone unnoticed, particularly by her father, who in line with all fathers of teenage girls just doesn't "get" her. Her lifeline had become the internet, where she could talk to girls her own age from around the country, reinventing herself along the way. This is what has compelled her towards the capital, and towards a meet-up with one girl in particular – "Ueno Station 54".
Ueno54, or "Kumiko" as she is mostly known, is very friendly and accommodating towards Noriko, introducing her to the family and immediately whisking her off to meet a whole host of relatives. It is only when Noriko is called in to pretend to be a granddaughter to a dying man (who actually isn't dying) that she realises that she's only playing a role – and so is Kumiko. In fact, it's her trade – ever since being abandoned as a child, her only interest or knowledge of families comes from acting it out, or what is known as "family rental". She recruits Noriko, and later her sister Yuka (now also a runaway) – but can their real family retrieve them before they forget who they are, and throw in their lot for good with the "suicide circle", in which life or death simply derive from playing a role well...
The family unit is never in for an easy ride in Sion Sono's movies and Noriko's Dinner Table, an early example of his form, is no exception. It hammers nails into the generation gap, too, and although we're probably quite jaded these days about the impact of the internet and its ability to open doors, Sion effectively manages to show us a world where the internet still has some mystery. The haikyo.com website is Noriko's internet destination of choice, but in making the age-old attempt to find herself, she makes herself incredibly vulnerable, uncovering a world which exists on the fringes of what's commonly considered to be real. The film spends a great deal of time building up its plot, though – it has plenty of opportunity to do so, at 2 hours 35 minutes long – so it's an altogether quieter Sion Sono film than I'm used to, and only skirts what could be considered horror in a few select moments – though these pack a characteristic punch. It's a strange blend of genres throughout. Norkio's Dinner Table places most of its emphasis on what constitutes a person's identity – it continually asks its characters "are you connected to yourself??" but for the most part, none of them know who they really are. Kazue Fukiishi, playing Noriko/Mitsuko, may have been in her twenties by the time she came to play this role, but she does an excellent job of portraying the nervy, overthinking teenager – it really brought back to me how much I hated being that age, actually, as what you gain in gravity defiance you immediately forfeit to social awkwardness and cod-philosophising. However, it is Tsugumi, the Sion Sono frequent flyer playing Kumiko/Ueno Station 54, here who steals the show – outwardly very self-assured, she is equally cold and calculating, methodically stripping Noriko and Yuka's personalities away whilst enacting the Japanese perfect wife/daughter (or whatever the role requires) with saccharin, superficial grace. It's Jean-Paul Sartre with a manicure. Under her watchful eye the film becomes a jigsaw puzzle, and it makes you go through a great deal before you get anything approaching resolution, with several narrators and several chapters, which move backwards and forwards through time. Sion Sono is nothing if not ambitious with his films and here's no exception.
Whilst perhaps not hitting the heights of Love Exposure in its assault on the family unit for plain old wackiness, Noriko's Dinner Table is an interesting spin on the fictional universe of Suicide Circle nonetheless. It doesn't take anything away from the shock and weirdness of the original film, but it shows that it has the capacity to be extended in a wholly new direction.