Japan’s suicide rate is nearly twice that of the U.S. and three times that of the U.K., with the number of people taking their own lives each year only recently dipping below 30,000. It is also the leading cause of death among Japanese in their teens and 20s. Why this should be so in a society so orderly, safe and prosperous is often put down to cultural and historical factors, such as all those samurai, fictional and real, cutting their stomachs and being rather admired for it.
Of course, it’s not that simple (a lot of those samurai were forced to take a sword to themselves). Instead, youth suicide is a multifaceted problem that defies easy solution, especially when, as is often the case, it is an act of impulse, with warning signs missed or dismissed by parents, teachers and other responsible adults.
Kazuya Konaka’s fantasy drama “Seki Seki Ren Ren (Deep Red Love)” struck me as a film that might open a few eyes, young and not-so-young, to the causes and consequences. Not a solution, that is, but a start.
Based on a novel of the same title by horror specialist Minato Shukawa, this film about a girl who wanders her neighborhood as a ghost, after leaping to her death from the roof of an apartment building, is rather upfront about its preventive purpose, though its methods are artfully indirect.
The heroine, Juri (Tao Tsuchiya), looks exactly as she did when she was alive, in her spiffy high school uniform and with nary a strand of her perfectly cut long hair out of place. Only everything is different, since the living, including her still grieving mother, can no longer see or hear her. This bothers her, as she says quite clearly, though the objects of even her most pointed remarks blithely ignore them.
Surrounded by family, friends and strangers, she is nonetheless effectively alone, save for creepy winged demons she dubs “bug men.” Fastening onto the weak and vulnerable, they urge their targets to do away with themselves. Juri hates them, but can’t stop them.
One day, a young mother pushing a baby stroller gives Juri, who is sitting on the first-floor ledge of the above-mentioned apartment building, a curious stare. More annoyed than surprised, Juri makes a quick exit, but later a little girl playing alone in a nearby park smiles at her and they have a friendly moment together, though the girl’s frazzled-looking mother soon returns to take her away. Having finally made positive contact with the world of the living, Juri is understandably eager to renew it.
Later, however, Juri sees the bug men hovering about the mother and realizes that both she and her daughter, whom she has dubbed “Ringo-chan” (Little Apple), may be in danger. What, if anything, can she do?
This may make “Seki Seki Ren Ren” sound like a variant on the “Death Note” series or other teen-targeted films with supernatural horror elements. But as Juri searches for answers to her existential dilemma, she reflects on her past — and the film becomes more of an unusually sensitive and perceptive seishun eiga (youth film) than a shocker.
Alive, we see, Juri was anything but the stereotyped suicidal teen, isolated, withdrawn and bullied. Instead she was good pals with Midori (Fumika Shimizu), a sweet-natured classmate, while having a secret crush on Junya (Ryo Yoshizawa), a childhood friend grown into an attractive, if oblivious, guy. Then for that eternal reason, jealousy, this cozy little triumvirate began to dissolve, as Juri felt the ground shift sickeningly under her feet.
This approach of emphasizing Juri’s living normality more than her tragic end (though the POV shot of her fatal jump is queasily realistic) may result in an airbrushing of unpleasant truths, but it stands, I think, a better chance of reaching real-life teens, including the ones at risk. The implied if strongly stated message is that suicide is not only for the friendless losers of the adolescent world, but also average-seeming types who succumb to feelings of worthlessness and despair — and a momentary impulse with permanent consequences.
Eighteen-year-old Tsuchiya plays Juri in both her living and ghostly forms with an appealing naturalness, but she also clearly differentiates the former Juri, who is somewhat self-centered and devious (if quirky and cute), from the latter, who has acquired a certain wisdom and resignation. Both have a shadow in their souls, but both also have a charming sort of pluck.
Is that enough to carry a film in which the heroine spends a lot of screen time walking meditatively down city streets? Not quite, but “Seki Seki Ren Ren” makes self-destruction seem not romantic and cool, but unbearably sad. Juri’s lonely limbo may not be torture — but it also never ends.
Fun fact: Author Minato Shukawa won a Naoki Prize for his novel “Hana Manma” in 2005 but has also written three scripts for the “Ultraman Mebius” TV series, including two directed by Kazuya Konaka.