With the success of Japanese suicide themed horror films such as Kyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse and Sion Sono's Suicide Club it's no surprise to see that a few knock offs have emerged. 2003's Suicide Manual borrows elements from both of these films and throws in bits and pieces of movies like Saw (the ending, specifically) and Hideo Nakata's original Ring film but ultimately loses focus around the half way mark.
Yuu (Kenji Mizuhashi) is a cameraman for a television station whose boss, Yashiro (Hideo Sakaki) wants him to shoot some footage for a documentary on suicide pacts. With the recent demise of four young people who all killed themselves in the same room, he and his co-worker/lady friend Rie (Chisato Morishita) grab a camera and head to the crime scene. After interviewing a few locals and getting little more than filler material, Rie suggests that they go to the actual apartment and take a look around to see if they can find anything of substance. When they arrive, they meet a girl named Nanami (Ayaka Maeda) who, after some convincing, talks to them about what happened. It seems that she was all ready to join her friends in death and only didn't go through with it because someone named Rickie didn't show up. She then produces a 'suicide manual' in the form of a mysterious DVD and shows it to Yuu who borrows it from her so that he can watch it. When he puts it in, he sees Rickie (Yuuko Nakamura) as she educates the viewer on various effective ways of taking ones own life.
It seems that Rickie runs a suicide pact message board on the internet and sends these strange DVDs out to anyone who she thinks is serious about killing themselves as a sort of 'how to' guide. Yuu figures this side of the investigation is far more interesting from a documentary stand point than a surface look at the events and so he starts to dig a little deeper. The further he goes with his investigation the stranger things get and soon his behavior starts to become erratic, even more so after he visits a spiritualist who explains to Yuu what happens to the souls of suicide victims.. His boss, who has always teased him, starts to get to him and it looks like Yuu is getting closer and closer to the edge...
Suicide Manual starts off reasonably well but it just flat out runs out of steam by the half way point. Director Osamu Fukutani, working off of a script he co-wrote with Hiroshi Kanno, let's the understated and quite side of the film spiral into pointlessness. At first, we think the movie is going to wind up as a reasonably smart examination of why suicide pacts exist and how this strange little subculture came to be but once the whole Rikki DVD comes into play, that's tossed out the window in favor of showing us Yuu's gradual downward spiral. This isn't to say that the film doesn't have its moments, as there are a couple of eerie and even powerful scenes here, but the movie doesn't add up to the sum of its parts and the ending feels out of place.
In terms of what works for the film, Kenji Mizuhashi is quite good in the lead. He's got a sadness to his look that really suits his character perfectly and his morose appearance fits the macabre subject matter very well. The actual footage that appears on Rikki's DVD is interesting in that, while Rikki's narration is goofy, it allows Fukutani to build some rather unsettling set pieces that stand as the highlight of the film. The movie's score, which is quite minimalist, is effective in that it, like Mizuhashi's performance, really suits the material well. It's a shame then that the film can't keep it together for the last half. Unsure if it wants to be a ghost story, a serious expose or statement on suicide pacts or simply a bleak melodrama it instead feels very contrived and it plays with too many ideas at the same time which ultimately prevents it from thoroughly exploring any of them.
The 1.85.1 widescreen transfer is, unfortunately, not anamorphic but aside from that it doesn't look bad at all. The film was shot on digital video so you don't get the same kind of depth that you do out of 35mm film but you can't fault the transfer for that. There is some shimmering throughout but aside from that, the picture is clean, colorful and easy on the eyes. There are some really, really mild compression artifacts in some of the black spots and darker scenes in the film if you want to look for them but they're not so obvious that they're distracting. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural and for a DV production there is a fair amount of fine detail present in the picture. It's a shame that the widescreen image isn't anamorphic, but other than that this is actually a decent transfer of a low budget movie.
Suicide Manual is presented in its original Japanese language in a nice Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround track with optional subtitles available in traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese and in English. The quality of the audio itself is pretty decent, with a few nice moments where some distinct channel separation enhances the mood. The score sounds quite eerie and the dialogue is easy enough to understand. There are no problems to report with hiss or distortion and the lower end of the mix has enough bass to it that you'll notice it. The only problem is with the English subtitles, which are more than a little awkward in spots. You can follow the movie easily enough but there are plenty of awkward phrases and a few typos as well.
Extras for this release include the film's original trailer, a still gallery, and a behind the scenes documentary that runs for roughly twenty-minutes. None of these contain any English subtitles but the documentary features some interviews with the cast and crew as well as some behind the scenes footage. Promotional stills for the upcoming Suicide Manual 2 and for the Suicide Manual soundtrack CD are also included and the disc features animated menus and chapter stops for the feature. The keepcase fits inside an attractive cardboard slipcase that features identical cover art and text.
Suicide Manual has a few interesting ideas that it swats around during its duration but ultimately fails to deliver on the potential that the premise shows. The direction and cinematography is slick and for a low budget film it looks quite good but the plot meanders to the point where it becomes tedious. The import disc from A Plus Pictures has decent A/V quality but the subs are weak and the extras are not translated. Skip it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.