These films both generated controversy and strong (mostly positive) reactions at western film festivals, due to both their subject matter and their level of gore. They've gained a little bit of cult status since their release earlier this decade, similar to "Battle Royale", another film I'd put in this genre and probably the "Pulp Fiction" of Japanese cinema in terms of its influence.
Both films have suicide as their central theme. "Suicide Club" (aka "Suicide Circle") came first, and tells the story of a wave of youth suicides plaguing Tokyo, including a group of 54 schoolgirls who jump in front of a train (in graphic fashion) and another group of students who casually jump from the roof of their high school. The mystery is what's behind the suicides, and most of the film is told from the point of view of the investigators - C.S.I. style.
"Noriko's Dinner Table" is billed as a "prequel", but it's really more of a parallel story. "Suicide Circle" leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and "Noriko's Dinner Table" does not answer many of them. Instead, it's a story of the alienation behind the suicides from more of a personal level, focusing on three specific girls who may or may not be part of the "suicide circle" - if such a thing even really exists in the fictional Tokyo created by director Shion Sono.
I watched both of these films with no pre-judgments - I had never heard of them. My wife wanted to see them, but I went in cold, not knowing either their reputations or their plots. Since then, I've read quite a bit about them, and some of the reactions by westerners I consider very strange.
First, these types of films are not particularly popular in Japan. They are neither reflective of society nor embraced by it. Many westerners seem to want to interpret them through the prism of Japanese societal stereotypes, but I think that misses the point. No, most kids in Japan are not constantly contemplating suicide. Most are not even particularly unhappy. Most parents are good parents, most kids are good students, and they mostly stay at home and do their schoolwork, go to college and get jobs. Japan is a really, really normal country, despite the weirdness and darkness that westerners seem to like to project onto it. In fact, I think it's just as likely that these films are a reaction to the boredom that comes from living in such a normal, peaceful place as the reverse. It's similar to the random and unfocused angst a lot of American kids feel living in the suburbs.
Second, from a pure filmmaking standpoint, these films are just not very well-crafted. The same is true of "Battle Royale" and most other Japanese films in this genre. They suffer from a lack of control over the script and dialogue, overly long exposition (endless, ENDLESS scenes of characters explaining their feelings in voice-overs), a lack of coherence, poor editing, uninteresting cinematography, and other problems. Occasionally they're bad enough to be laugh out loud funny, unintentionally. They're also just plain too long.
(I am a huge fan of guys like David Lynch, so it's not that I have a problem with needing to think, or with long films. What I have a problem with is utter randomness in a narrative film.)
In fact, I've noticed that a lot of Japanese films are revered here in a way that I don't think makes a lot of sense. I think some people might confuse a good concept with good execution. Maybe Americans are just so hungry for something unique that they're willing to overlook obvious (and repeated) flaws, or chalk them up as "cultural differences".
You're right to then wonder why I give them this much attention. Partly it is to say exactly that - that the reputation these films have is in some ways undeserved.
But they do stick with you. They're very far from perfect, but they are memorable. What Japanese filmmakers in this genre lack in filmmaking craft, they partly atone for in concept and imagination. And there are things about these films that are disturbing.
I want to focus on "Noriko's Dinner Table" because it is the better of the two films. Unfortunately, it's kind of necessary that you watch "Suicide Club" first, or you'll be a little lost. The main issue with "Suicide Club" is that there's just no clear narrative and no three dimensional characters to care about - it's more a series of events surrounding this mass suicide on a train platform. You're then presented with several copycat suicides and eventually follow along with the police as they investigate, complete with many red herrings and plot devices that end up having no point.
The story meanders onto one of the (still-living) targets of the investigation who shares a mysterious tattoo with many of the victims but has not yet killed herself. There's a suggestion that a Morning Musume-style all-girl singing group called "Dessert" (or "Dessart" or "Desert", the film can never decide) is behind everything, then something laughable about a glam-rock David Bowie wannabe who falsely claims to be the puppet master (but is still a killer). A lot of pseudo-existential questions are asked in too-straightforward fashion ("are you connected to yourself?"). The Japanese love to do this, I've noticed - they'll make the entire film completely obtuse, then beat you over the head with something ridiculously literal out of the blue.
"Noriko's Dinner Table" is a lot more unsettling and effective. Sono seems to have learned something from his earlier work and this time he focuses squarely on three girls throughout the entire film. Noriko and Yuka are teenage sisters, Noriko being severely unhappy with her family and bored with her life in rural Japan. She befriends a group of girls in Tokyo on an online forum and, during a power outage, runs away from home to meet the leader, a girl named Kumiko who claims to have been "born in a coin locker" at Ueno Station - an orphan. She makes a living running a "family rental" business - "acting" as family to those who pay for it.
Noriko falls in with Kumiko and begins a life under Kumiko's control, playing family characters to those who pay, an obvious juxtaposition to the fakeness of her real family life back home. It begins to take on the feel of a cult as she's brainwashed by Kumiko into believing family as a concept does not actually exist. Eventually, Yuka joins Noriko, although they never speak as sisters when they meet. By this time, Noriko has utterly lost herself in her characters, even changing her name and forgetting that she was ever called anything else. The two girls "pretend" to be sisters from then on, in character.
What do their parents do? Call the police, right? After all, these are underage girls who have suddenly disappeared. But no, in one of the film's many breaks with basic logic, the parents initially do nothing. The father, Tetsuzo, continues working, the mother continues doing dishes or whatever it is she does (dishes and painting are all she's ever shown to do). Eventually, Tetsuzo begins looking for the girls himself, as his wife slips into madness. He stumbles upon various clues intentionally left by Yuka, who may have just wanted to follow her sister and test her parents rather than truly break with her family.
Tetsuzo's quest brings him to Tokyo, where he finds Kumiko and confronts her. She tells him nothing, and rather than drag her to the police station, he again just lets her go. What a pussy! The same happens later when he's confronted himself at a coffee shop by a guy who obviously knows where his girls are, but rather than telling him goes into another long-winded pseudo-intellectual speech about knowing yourself and your place in the world. The logical choice at that point would be to stand up and punch the guy in the face repeatedly until he coughs up some real info, but instead Tetsuzo just sits there and takes it.
Eventually there's a big climax and stuff happens that is pretty interesting and unexpected. I won't spoil it, except to say that Tetsuzo does finally get some balls and puts an actual plan into action. But the last 20 minutes or so of the film are both unpredictable and poignant, albeit still a little random. (I still don't understand why one of the big things that happens at the end does, and why nobody stops it.)
The thing I found unsettling about both of these films, and in fact find disturbing about many films in this genre, is the utter lack of empathy felt by most of the characters. There's a scene with Kumiko, who's played by the amazing Tsugumi (just one name, like Madonna), where she's met by someone who is obviously her real mother. She explains via voice-over that the woman had asked her to meet, and that she had claimed on the phone to be her mother. Kumiko initially shows no emotion whatsoever, asking the sobbing woman matter-of-factly why she believes she's her real mother and how she expects her to act. As it becomes clearer that she actually is Kumiko's real mother, Kumiko appears to begin to break - she starts to cry and speak more from the heart, telling her she's been waiting for this moment.
But then she turns it off. Instantly, and without warning. Her welled-up tears turn into a stony glare. What was becoming an emotion-filled scene for us, and one of the few cathartic moments in the film, is suddenly snatched away. Kumiko makes it clear that it was all an act, and viciously criticizes her mother's own "acting", calling it unbelievable and fake. She tells her that if she wants to learn how to act, she'd be happy to hire her as an actor in her "family circle". To Kumiko, this had simply been an audition.
It's an amazing scene. At almost no point in the film does anybody demonstrate real empathy for anybody else, and even when they do, it's unclear if it's genuine. (There's another violent scene involving Kumiko illustrating this that most will probably find even more disturbing, but I don't want to spoil that drama.) And that's part of the point. Sono says in the DVD interview that he wanted to tell parents to be more involved with their kids (because otherwise, I guess, they run away and join suicide clubs). In fact, it's almost comical hearing him say he hopes that families watch this film. Yeah, blood splattering everywhere, all sorts of suicide talk, of course it's a family film!
But the fact that you're never sure of the exact nature of the relationships in the film makes it very hard to know anyone's real motivations. And that's actually kind of intriguing, because it makes it both impossible to predict how anybody's going to act in any given situation and also less hard to believe when they do something unexpected. This is not a relationship dynamic you see in western films, but it's common in this genre of Japanese films. And it's necessary to the theme here.
But it is uncomfortable. And at almost three hours, it can be tough to sit through at times. If people really acted this way to each other, it's probably not a world you'd want to live in either. It is worse than something like "Pulp Fiction", where violence is treated as a matter of course - there's definitely that in this film, but there's also a lot of selfish manipulation going on here, by all the characters. They are all almost irredeemably evil. The only character who isn't is Tetsuzo, and he is instead completely impotent and weak through most of the film.
I mentioned Tsugumi but I have to also mention Kazue Fukiishi and Yuriko Yoshitaka, who played Noriko and Yuka, respectively. Both excellent. Fukiishi straddles this line throughout the film where you're never sure if she's crazy or just acting. She maintains that right up until the end of the film. Yoshitaka was apparently a newcomer for this film and she gets criticized repeatedly for bad acting following takes in the film's "making of" documentary (something you'd never see on a DVD of a US film!), but you wouldn't know it by what actually made the final cut. (Not for nothing, but she has also become really beautiful in the couple years since this film was made.)
I recommend seeing "Noriko's Dinner Table" because it's an interesting concept and far different from anything you'll see here in both plot and tone. It's also got some great acting. But I caution against reading too much into it as a comment on Japanese society. I do believe that it's impossible to separate any film from the culture in which it's made, but that doesn't mean you need to take it all literally, or at face value. There is alienation and angst in Japan like there is anywhere else. Some people do commit suicide, as they do here. Doesn't mean everybody does. Doesn't mean everybody or even most people want to or even think about it. And people in Japan do not feel or act towards each other as they do in this film.
I have to then recommend "Suicide Club" only so you know the backstory of "Noriko's Dinner Table", but just be prepared to laugh at parts you're clearly not supposed to.
Noriko's Dinner Table Trailer