The Suicide Manual: Intermediate Level Review
Those who choose to die by their own hands – are they now free from their pain?
Although Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and killings remain relatively low it has suffered sizeable deaths counts in recent years from youth suicides; the internet has been amongst the chief assistants responsible for gathering depressed teens and adults via low-key chat rooms, while other reports suggest simpler means. It would appear that as a continually growing economic superpower Japan continues to put increasing social pressure on students and workers in order to maintain high standards. For some it’s enough to drive them over the edge, while for others it might just be the loss of love or hope that has them re-evaluate their life. There are many reasons for suicide, but only those who go through with it truly understand themselves, and that brings into question what the rest of the world might be thinking. In a means to address this ongoing problem (within Japan at least) there have been a few programmes that have documented this suicide epidemic. Now we head into film, with such examples as Suicide Circle, while anime has also tackled the subject in its own way: see Paranoia Agent for example.
The Suicide Manual: Intermediate Level is a follow up to Osamu Fukutani’s Suicide Manual (or Jisatsu Manyuaru), which was also made in 2003. Here director Yuuichi Onuma, in his V-Cinema debut, takes over proceedings with a film that starts of by issuing a statement that its purpose is to warn against suicide, in turn being based upon Wataru Tsurumi’s book “The Complete Manual of Suicide”. Having not seen the first Suicide Manual I cannot comment as to whether or not the themes of suicide have been greatly expanded upon; it’s certainly curious as to why it was felt that a sequel was necessary though. It’s important to note that despite its subject matter and the fact that it was almost banned in Japan for its handling of a taboo issue The Suicide Manual: Intermediate Level is a very sincere and straight-forward piece of work. While we see some disturbing imagery of suicides in practice (staged of course as part of the mystery DVD) that are meant to be glorified for the purpose of the depressed viewer the film is far from glorifying the idea for the real audience. It should not be classed as horror - though its adult certificate is indeed warranted - but instead a drama about tortured souls who seek what is in their hearts redemption.
The film tells the story of Yosuke (Yoichiro Saito) - a forensics detective who has recently begun to investigate a series of suicides, each victim carrying a mysterious DVD that offers the most effective options for anyone wishing to kill themselves. Yosuke lives with his girlfriend Megumi (Nozomi Ando), whom he saved a few years ago when she was on the verge of death, having tried to take her own life. Their relationship since then has been difficult; Megumi has tried to cut her wrists several times, which has placed a heavy burden upon Yosuke’s shoulders, in turn affecting his state of mind. With an ongoing investigation behind a supposed cult who might be making these DVDs Yosuke has to keep his wits in a case involving things he doesn’t understand, while under his very roof Megumi exhibits the exact same tendencies that might just set him on a path to self destruction.
It’s clear that The Suicide Manual: Intermediate Level is designed to try and seek answers for something that nobody really understands. As such, our main protagonist Yosuke can be seen as a cipher, questioning the motives behind these very things that we struggle to fathom. This in turn puts the viewer in the same shoes as he while the storyline slowly unravels. Part detective story, part educational video The Suicide Manual: Intermediate Level does a fine job in balancing its agendas; we get an interesting tale of two lovers as told via a narration through Yosuke, which inevitability takes care of all exposition as we witness personal flashbacks, as well as providing some deep and thought provoking questions. Perhaps the best example comes early on when Megumi asks Yosuke what he’d do if he lost all of the things that gave him pleasure, to which he merely replies “I’d be sure not to loose them next time.” When faced with a similar predicament what would we do? Would life still be worth living if everything we held so dearly was gone? It’s impossible to answer, but what we do know is that hope should always be eternal. It’s up to the individual what they decide to do with themselves.
In many ways the film succeeds at looking through different lenses, presenting us with several options, clues and opinions ranging from loneliness and self-loathing to sheer depression, but it also uses Megumi as a staple example which has been commonly discussed amongst experts who try to find reasoning behind attempted suicides. We view Megumi as a lost girl who can’t accept what life has handed her for whatever reason. For years she’s been unsuccessfully cutting her wrists, each time ending up in hospital, and each time telling her boyfriend that she’s failed again. But is all of this just a cry for help? It seems that therein lays the bone of contention. The film then becomes a heartening study about a person heading on a downward spiral, while Yosuke, who we once thought was pretty level headed, also finds his mind degenerating amidst his lurid acts later on
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For a straight to video production, and one with a presumably small budget, The Suicide Manual: Intermediate Level is a very well shot film. Onuma doesn’t try to rack up tension or go for shock tactics; this isn’t a film that is meant to make you jump out of your seat, but to take stock of what’s happening both here and in reality. His scenes involving death by fire, drowning, car, electrocution and so forth (though death by poisonous creatures is quite an odd one) convey their intended sense of desperation and are admittedly quite unnerving and gruesome, but they’re also well directed and for the most part are executed appropriately so that the final minutes in the lives of these troubled people hammer home its point, whether it be about the futility of such an act or the fact that this is exactly what goes on under our noses. Onuma also has a keen eye for location and never falls into any serious pitfalls, trying otherwise to keep things rather low key with simple use of shadows and many a static shot in which dialogue becomes the most important aspect of communicating. Underpinning this is a score by Masatoshi Nishimura, which tends to get a little ominous from time to time, but thankfully the director chooses to go with just as much silence in which the film’s reflective poignancy filters through.
Also worth noting are some fine performances which - like the film’s aesthetics - are understated and methodically approached. Nozomi Ando returns, having also starred in the first film, which again I have yet to comment on. To date her most prolific roles have undoubtedly been in 1999’s Gamera: Revenge of Iris and Sakuya: Slayer of Demons from 2000, in which she played the lead heroin – and a lovely looking one at that. Here she’s given an opportunity to play a far more introverted character and it’s certainly a role that tests her talents and sees to that she can create sweet and misunderstood figures. Eureka’s Yoichiro Saito has more of a complex role to manage as his character’s conflicted personality slowly changes throughout the course of the feature. His handling is solid enough, even if Yosuke seems a little too weird at times. Saito could quite easily have gone either way but Onuma keeps him restrained and focused, which in the end enhances his performance immeasurably.
Curses! It’s a shame that so far Terra has been putting out good films, but showing a little neglect toward their overall presentations. Again we have a standards conversion (NTSC-PAL), but it gets worse. The feature is presented in a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which I continually see with DV films. Edge Enhancement and aliasing cause the obvious problems, while black levels and contrast could definitely look better; the former coming across as slightly murky, with very little shadow detail as foreground and background ocassionally blend into one other. Detail is generally pleasing however, and skin tones appear natural.
Japanese DD2.0 is our only sound option, and it’s quite functional. There’s not a great deal more that this film would have benefited from. Its score, when it gets going, offers an interesting mix which is well produced here, while dialogue presents no problems.
Optional English subtitles are available and again there are no problems to report.
The features here are a little light. We get the original Japanese trailer, a UK promotional trailer and a behind the scenes featurette which lasts close to nine minutes. It shows various stages of production, covering special effects and make-up, interior and on location shoots, with a few little fun moments that show the cast and crew enjoying themselves.
I have to admit that I really wasn’t expecting much from The Suicide Manual: Intermediate Level. With a concept such as this it’s all too easy for a director to fall into several traps, but Yuuichi Onuma tackles his subject with care, providing both a topical and sincere look at the emotional difficulties that people face every day, some of whom see no other option but to end their own lives for what they feel is the best route to take. In addition the relationship between the two central figures is nicely played and remains ultimately tragic, while the additional story involving the main investigation is quite compelling, and neatly comes around full circle in an overall tightly paced film.