(Movie Review by Yorgo Douramacos) “Noriko’s Dinner Table” is a Japanese parable, a meditation on issues like urbanization and the impact of family, technology and image on the concept of identity. The film wonders what it means, in a world bent on breaking all boundaries, to be one person in favor of another. Are we defined by our upbringing, our genes, our choices, or is it all just gibberish into the void, built up to be torn down?
Noriko is a dissatisfied teen in rural Japan. Her father has meticulously built a life for his family, one free from all uncertainty. He has a steady job, reporting for a paper that only publishes good news, and sends his two daughters, Noriko and a younger sister, Yuka, to a secure school where they are growing steadily into young women. So successful has her father been at building this ideal existence that he and his wife fail to recognize that Noriko is chaffing for change and hungers for something else.
The film is split into segments, as each major character explains the proceedings from their point of view. The first is Noriko, telling us first that she has run away to Tokyo and then going on to explain why. It is here we learn the back-story, about her family and her desire to shake up her life. The film moves openly between time frames, a device indicative of the experimental mood of “Noriko’s Dinner Table”. Once in Tokyo, Noriko seeks out a girl she’s met and befriended on a website aimed specifically at alienated young girls. They meet on this site to discuss their feeling and frustrations and re-assure one another. Noriko prefers older city girls, as she can imitate them without fear of discovery, and has slowly built a separate identity for herself, one she hopes to explore in Tokyo.
When she finally contacts and meets her friend she is drawn into a slightly bizarre underworld where people offer their services for rent, as stand in family members for people who’ve become separated from their real families by un-identified forces (time, economics, death etc.). In an awkward parallel narrative, the website is also linked to a rash of mass suicides involving teenage girls, which seems to only exist to tie the film loosely with the director’s previous film, “Suicide Club”. The device also works, once Noriko’s sister runs away as well, to motivate their father’s search for them. Though both he and his search suffer by association with the Suicide Club device, making them seem more broadly cinematic than human.
The press for “Noriko’s Dinner Table” has been careful to point out that the writer/director, Sion Sono, is also considered to be a poet. I do not know who conferred this title upon him, whether he’s published poetry collections or just a few scattered poems, whether he writes poetry in a personal journal or just woke up one day before the film was to be made and said, “Hey…I’m a poet!” Whatever the case, his publicity department indulges his pretense and so we are told he is, “Writer/Director/Poet.”
I am no expert in Japanese poetry, so I’ll refrain from critiquing his obvious insertion of imagery and verse into the film. But I do know a bit about movies, both foreign and domestic, old and new, orient and occident. And a sure constant in film, the world over…narration is a cheap device. Voiceovers should be used sparingly, lest they wear on your audience, distract from your images and just generally ruin everything.
Sion Sono knows no such rule. The commentary in “Noriko’s Dinner Table” is unceasing. There is not an emotion un-identified, a thought left un-verbalized or any indication that the Writer/Director/Poet even realized he was making a movie and not a book. Sometimes it’s as though the actors were listening along to the voice, waiting to know what to register next. At first this is distracting. Then it becomes annoying. By the time two and a half hours of it have passed, you’re ready to strangle the next person who makes an observation, about anything.
Which raises the issue of this film’s length. Along with recording over the narration track with complete silence, “Noriko’s Dinner Table” would greatly benefit from the loss of probably thirty to fifty minutes of excess footage. You could even keep most of the scenes, just truncate them, losing the visual padding that was added to make room for all of the unnecessary commentary.
Film is a visual medium. And, for the sake of argument, let’s say that a picture is worth a thousand words. So, imagine a striking image of tangerine peel, unfolding in a dish, as there is early in “Noriko’s Dinner Table”. This image grounds you, unlocks your mind to the possibilities of the extraordinary hidden in the everyday. Then a voice comes over explaining the exact significance of that precise tangerine peel. Either your interpretation of the image was right and now you have superfluous restatement equaling 1025 words, or your vision is nullified and the image is contracted. Words are image killers. But an image can be infinitely reshaped and refined by a progression of further images, thus the power of film. Sion Sono does not trust the eye, does not trust his camera and does not trust his audience. As a result he has made an annoying and condescending film.
On the bright side, the camera work and editing are very well executed. The best moment of the film comes, ironically, at the moment of one of its biggest mis-steps. When it first introduces the fact of the Suicide Club we get a loaded and well played montage, telling us everything we need to know, without a single word. Then it’s back to the story and all of the dull plodding talk.
And the underlying concept is interesting. Even the devices of the father’s newspaper job, the mother’s inability to paint her daughters’ actual expressions and the whole family rental business could’ve worked to good effect. The director obviously has a fertile imagination and a talented support team, tragically obscured by his monomaniacal misunderstanding of the medium.
Sion Sono (director) / Sion Sono (screenplay)
CAST: Kazue Fukiishi … Noriko Shimabara
Tsugumi … Kumiko (Ueno54)
Ken Mitsuishi … Tetsuzo Shimabara
Yuriko Yoshitaka … Yuka Shimabara
Shiro Namiki … Ikeda
Sanae Miyata … Taeko Shimabara