Youth suicides hit a 30-year high in Japan in fiscal 2017, with 250 kids of high school age and under taking their own lives. Ijime (bullying) was a factor in many of these deaths, but there were others, as well as many unanswered questions.
So Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s “12 Suicidal Teens” is timely, if not the sort of plodding, well-meaning film Japanese directors tend to turn out on social issues. Based on Tow Ubukata’s 2016 novel, the film bears a passing resemblance to “Suicide Club,” the 2001 Sion Sono cult hit that made luridly stylish entertainment out of mass suicides.
Instead of leaping off a train platform to their deaths, like Sono’s 54 schoolgirls, the film’s teens are vetted online by one of their group — 15-year-old Satoshi (Mahiro Takasugi) — who selects 11 for what his website calls a “painless death.” One by one they make their way to a creepy abandoned hospital where, after following an elaborate security procedure, they find themselves in a large room with 12 beds. At noon, their smiling host makes his entrance — but in one of the beds is already a teenaged boy, apparently dead.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||118 mins.|
If he has been murdered, they realize, one of them is responsible. Their nascent group unity begins to crumble. If they are to go to their deaths as one, they decide, they first have to unmask the killer in their midst.
With the stage set for a puzzle-plot murder mystery, I was wondering when and how more bodies would turn up. But the film undercuts this expectation, while keeping the whodunit tension high. The 12 soon discover clues everywhere, from a boy’s sneaker in the women’s restroom to two chairs shoved halfway into the elevators to keep the doors from closing.
As they try to figure out what they mean, the protagonists bond, clash and reveal the reasons why they seek death. The boisterous Kenichi (Yuto Fuchino) was bullied for being socially clueless. The “Goth Lolita” fashionista Mitsue (Kotone Furukawa) wants to follow a favorite musician into the great beyond. And, most sympathetically, the terminally ill Shinjiro (Mackenyu Arata) wants to die on his own terms.
Some of the suicidal are harder to figure out. Clad entirely in black, Anri (Hana Sugisaki) is whip-smart and tough-minded. After the apocalypse, she would emerge a survivor. Instead she wants to end it all. And there is Nobuo (Takumi Kitamura), a good-looking guy who describes himself as popular. What is his problem?
The stories of the 12 come out, as they must, but the film does not delve sentimentally into their pasts. There are no hokey flashbacks, no overwrought tears.
There are, however, distinctive, focused performances from the 12 principals, especially Sugisaki. All but unrecognizable from her previous roles, including her breakout as a schoolgirl who befriends a troubled artist in 2015’s “Pieta in the Toilet,” Sugisaki is the film’s strongest presence: dark, intense and, in anger, incandescent.
Tsutsumi has made many visually fluent, eminently forgettable films over the years, but shows a more serious and thoughtful side in this one, while keeping the proceedings up to his usual fast pace. Despite its unfortunate English title, “12 Suicidal Teens” is a film that might well speak to teens like the ones in the film — and save lives.