12 Suicidal Teens (十二人の死にたい子どもたち, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2019)

12 Suicidal Teens posterJapan has a relatively high suicide rate, but even so the number of people taking their own lives had been steadily decreasing, hitting a 22-year low in 2016. Conversely, youth suicide rates peaked, hitting a 30-year high. Inspired by Tow Ubukata’s novel, 12 Suicidal Teens (十二人の死にたい子どもたち, Juni-nin no Shinitai Kodomo-tachi), as the title implies, sees a dozen high school students forming a kind of club in which they will take the decision to live or die as a group, ironically undercutting the sense of powerlessness which has led them to the conclusion that they have no other choice other than death.

Ringleader Satoshi (Mahiro Takasugi) has recruited 11 likeminded souls and furnished them with complicated instructions involving a series of secret codes granting them access to a basement meeting room in an abandoned hospital. The 12 dutifully make their way into the building, but a surprise is waiting for them. When the first guest arrives, a young man is already lying in one of the 12 beds arranged around the edges of the room, apparently having jumped the gun, dead or dying after taking a large amount of sleeping pills. Everyone concludes he must be the event’s organiser, only for Satoshi to suddenly arrive and attempt to “open” the meeting at which they’re supposed to discuss the issues thoroughly so they can be sure they’re making the right decision. Because of the unexpected 13th guest, a decision is taken to postpone the discussion until after they figure out what’s going on.

Part of the reason for that is less curiosity than a kind of resentment. The teens are worried that their own deaths maybe misunderstood or misused if they’re discovered with this randomer in their midst. What if he’s the victim of a serial killer and everyone thinks they are too, never getting the message that each of them was desperate to send with their deaths? One young man who is dying to get back at a neglectful mother by denying her a life insurance pay out is worried it might backfire and she’d end up quids in if the police decide he’s a murder victim and not a suicide. He decides to live (for the moment at least) almost all out of spite.

Spite is, it seems, a powerful motivator in one sense or another. What most of our teens want isn’t really death but freedom, an end to pain or suffering. Suicide rates spike in September because bullied students can’t bear the thought of returning to school. Bullying is indeed the reason one of our teens wants to die, only the instigator was a teacher who led his class to victimise an innocent student solely for the crime of being an “annoying” person. Another teen, meanwhile, was bullied until he finally snapped, pushing his aggressor down a flight of stairs. Unable to live with the guilt, he too feels he can’t go on.

For the girls, the lack of control is all the more obvious. One young woman walks around with a surgical mask covering her face, not because she’s hideously burned but because she’s fantastically beautiful. One of Japan’s many celebrity idols, she’s on the cover of a thousand teen magazines but doesn’t recognise herself in the images that she sees and resents the way in which her existence is micromanaged by others. She wants to die as a means of seizing her own agency, to prove that her life and her individuality were valid and mattered as distinct from the fake persona created by her managers. Her fame endangers the mission of the group’s most emo member who declares that the mass suicide should be bomb detonated under an indifferent society, that she’s dying to reject her existence and rebelling against having been born.

Like some of the others, she’s a survivor of abusive parenting and resents having been given a “meaningless” life. A few of the other teens feel the same but for different reasons, they are suffering longterm or terminal health conditions and resent both their fates and being forced to live on without hope. They choose death now to prove they have a choice and are leaving on their own terms, not those of the universe.

Eventually the conclusion that they come to is that to live is also a choice. Working together to solve the mystery of the unexpected guest, they begin to understand a little of each other’s lives and their own, bonding in a shared sense of futility that slowly drifts into a rejection of the nihilism that had convinced them that their only choice was death. A strangely uplifting experience, 12 Suicidal Teens is a dark celebration of life that makes a virtue of endurance and finally finds meaning in commonality and the simple joy of empathic connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Thicker than Water (犬猿, Keisuke Yoshida, 2018)

Thicker than Water posterIn the long history of the Japanese family drama, the tensions are generally vertical rather than horizontal. Siblings are often engaged in trying to broker the peace or snatch a little bit of independent living away from an all consuming family environment. Then again, we meet most families when the kids are gown up and struggling with their approaching transition into other families or other lives. Kids fight, but grown up brothers and sisters are supposed to find a degree of civility at least even if the petty resentments of childhood never quite go away. For the parallel pairs of mismatched siblings at the centre of Thicker than Water (犬猿, Kenen), however, the reverse is true.

Older sister Yuria (Keiko Enoue) has taken over the family print shop now that her father is bedridden while her younger, prettier sister Mako (Miwako Kakei) is struggling to make it as an actress. Often resentful of her sister’s domineering, business-like attitude, Mako wilfully targets her weaknesses by making barbed comments about her weight and appearance of which she knows Yuria is insecure. Yuria, meanwhile, treats her sister as a foolish child, immediately taking over rather than let Mako do something “wrong” and thereby chipping into her insecurities about a lack of intelligence.

The spiky dynamic between the two sisters intensifies when Yuria develops a crush on a handsome young salaryman who makes regular visits to the shop to get his posters printed. Kazunari (Masataka Kubota), however, predictably falls for Mako (who is only interested in him as a way of annoying her sister). Meanwhile, he has sibling drama of his own in that his no good, thuggish older brother Takuji (Hirofumi Arai) has just been released from prison and made an unwelcome reappearance in his life.

What exists between the siblings isn’t quite “rivalry”, mostly they aren’t fighting over parental affection or esteem so much reacting against their obviously complimentary characteristics. Yuria envies Mako’s beauty, while Mako secretly envies her sister’s intellectual confidence even if she also resents her bossiness and affectation of superiority in order to mask her insecurity. Kazunari makes a show of his earnestness, that he’s doing everything “properly” – working hard, living within his means, paying off his parents’ debts and saving for his retirement, while underneath it all he envies his brother’s non-conformity even if its risks terrify him. Thus they snipe at each other. The thing about family is they know where all the buttons are and find pressing them extremely hard to resist.

That said, the familial bond is a strong one and perhaps they can snipe cruelly at each other precisely because it is unlikely to break. Nevertheless, when pettiness and cruelty intensify there can hardly be a positive outcome save perhaps to hit the reset button and send our warring siblings back to their idyllic childhoods in which they played together happily free from their adult resentments. Like children fighting over toys, each wants what the other has and seethes over the injustice of not being the one to have it. An extreme situation might seem to clear the air, repair the relationships and restore them to their original condition with each reaching an understanding of themselves and their opposite number, but old habits are hard to break and any thaw in relations is likely to be extremely temporary.

No stranger to extremes, Yoshida opens with a humorous sequence spoofing a trailer for a cheesy Japanese teen romance which is enthusiastically recommended by a series of vox pop champions, not least among them Mako who who somewhat unethically plays the part of a lovestruck young woman who over identifies with the movie’s themes. The trailer promises a “parallel love story” which, in truly Yoshida-esque irony, is more or less what we get as we witness the symmetrical tales of our two sets of warring siblings whose animosity almost tips over into co-dependency. Mirrors of each other, they love and loathe but remain unable to reconcile themselves to the various faults they see reflected in their opposing number and therefore unable to break free from the petty jealousies and resentments which define family life. There may be no escape from the intense self loathing unfairly projected onto an equally burdened sibling, but perhaps there is faint hope in the enduring continuity of their quietly simmering warfare even as it binds them in mutual misery.


Thicker than Water was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)