Part of Japan's burgeoning "V-Cinema" industry, "The Manual" (originally titled "The Suicide Manual" but re-titled for its UK release to quell the attentions of the BBFC, who have been known to get jittery over anything concerning this theme) exploits the cheap and easy-to-use new Digital Video technology that has resulted in a glut of indie horror cheapies in the US and a huge, direct-to-video market in Japan. Unlike most of the poorly-made North American flicks, this one is a stylishly rendered offering by first-time director, Osamu Fukutani. Carefully lit and with striking images often meticulously composed, the film compares favourably with more famous examples of Japanese horror such as "Ringu" and "Audition" -- adeptly commandeering the striking, garish immediacy of the video image while retaining the professionalism and austere ambience of more expensive productions. In fact, so arty and clinical is Fukutani's style that many fans of the more attention-seeking examples of Japanese cult cinema (Takashi Miike's more extreme works, for instance) may find themselves alienated by this slowly paced attempt at moody atmospherics.
An epidemic of suicides among young people is spreading through the City. Yuu Tachibana (Kenji Mizuhashi): a young director for a small, local TV station, is assigned to make a sensationalist documentary about the phenomenon by his bullying producer -- although the earnest young director would prefer to be making a more serious piece of work. Together with his young assistant, Rie Izumikawa (Chisato Rishita), he films some material at the location of a triple suicide by three young people who met online on a Suicide message-board. While investigating the apartment, Yuu and Rie find a titleless black DVD in a case with a black cover and are surprised by the sudden appearance of a young school girl who claims that she was intended to die with the rest of the group! The girl talks of a mysterious woman called Rikki (Yuko Nakamura) who seems to be organising these suicide gatherings from the website! The DVD was sent to the girl by Rikki after she agreed to take part in one of the suicide events.
Back at the TV station, Yuu watches the DVD, and finds it includes the image of the beautiful Rikki presiding over the artily-shot deaths of various young people in a darkened, carefully lit room, while explaining how different suicide methods must be implemented to achieve the desired result! The DVD seems to gradually affect Yuu's mind in a terrible way; as he and Rie continue their project he begins to find himself plunging into a bottomless despair while the ghostly presence of Rikki becomes ever-more a factor in his life. Is Rikki one of the "suicide spirits": malevolent suicide victims who pass their despair on to the living like a plague from beyond the grave? And is Yuu about to become her next victim?
"The Complete Manual of Suicide" was a successful non-fiction book in Japan (selling over 1.2 million copies). It's author, Wataru Tsurumi, advocated the individual's right to end their own life and his book outlined the best methods of doing so! After its publication, the book was judged by many commentators to have been responsible for a number of suicides in Japan, and the film runs with this idea and adapts it to the -- by now -- familiar theme in Japanese horror of a virus-like supernatural force invading the physical world through modern media technology. The film appears to set out to be a warning to young people, judging by its opening disclaimer which assures that the film in no way intends to promote suicide but to act as a deterrent to it. Neither seems to be the case in reality: the content is typical Japanese ghost fare, although there are few outright scares, just moody, downbeat atmospherics -- something which is not likely to endear the film to a younger, sensation-seeking audience. The acting is generally good from all of the members of the small cast: Kenji Mizuhashi convincingly portrays Yuu's slide from sensitive young filmmaker to withdrawn depressive while Chisato Rishita (apparently, an ex-model) does well in an ambiguous role which requires her to seem quite isolated yet remain sympathetic. Yuko Nakamura makes for a rather more human antagonist than we normally encounter in Japanese horror: the white face and jerky movements are gone but the long black hair is still present! The whole film turns on a big, un-signposted twist at the end which changes the nature of events on a second viewing, and the cast do well in conveying both meanings without giving too much away.
Mainly though, "The Manual" will appeal to the cineaste with a taste for carefully composed mise-en-scène: Fukutani arranges each shot like a painting, with each character carefully positioned in the frame to convey a particular meaning. This is by far the most striking aspect of the film but it doesn't make for a particularly scary viewing experience -- despite the subject matter of the film! The scenes from the Suicide manual DVD give Fukutani his best chance to deliver some spooky and unsettling imagery and he grabs the opportunity with both hands: bizarre "suicide machines" and a group of people hanging from the neck by ropes in a shadowy warehouse as the ghostly Rikki moves among them are among the many short but effective sequences peppered throughout the film, but the overall tone of the piece is deliberately austere and grim. Fukutani has a strange taste for lingering on shots when nothing much is happening on screen -- giving the film an awkward, clammy calmness more indicative of an avant-garde project than a mainstream horror film. Like many Japanese ghost films, it does crumble into incoherence at the end but the dark, bleak tone and stimulating visual style are the primary attractions for the discerning viewer: those expecting a taboo-busting shock-fest will be sorely disappointed.
The newly-named SCREEN WORLD (formerly Screen Entertainment) bring "The Manual" to UK DVD in a non-anamorphic print, letterboxed at about 1.85:1. The DV-video image is pretty good for the most part and the 2.0 Stereo audio is also quite powerful; Osamu Fukutani's film features quite a nicely sculpted sound-design (unlike many shot-on-video features which often sound awful) and a nice score from Hiroko, all of which come across very well here. There are only a small amount of extras on the disc: a UK trailer; the original Japanese trailer; and a seven minute behind-the-scenes film set to music from the score. We also have a few trailers for other Screen World/Entertainment titles.
Short on scares but heavy on aesthetic cleverness, "The Manual" is an interesting but nonessential addition to the ranks of Japanese horror.