Osamu Fukutani's dangerously-titled The Suicide Manual (2003) begins with a on-screen disclaimer, reading the film is not intended to promote suicide but to warn against it. The disclaimer feels as if a safeguard against legal liability, as if cinematically moving into real-life tragic territory with a commercial genre film. Within the Japanese film a familiar trope is used: a video medium, here a DVD, which is disseminated by a guru named Rikki (Yuko Nakamura) who sends the disc to anyone who asks for it and posts on her suicide message board. The images on the disc are truly a manual: a method of suicide is introduced with a title card, then Rikki appears to give a short speech on the method's effectiveness, especially the pain inflicted by such a method. As Suicide Manual progresses, the methods revealed to the film's viewer within the disc become less familiar and more hideous and surreal.
Yu (Kenji Mizuhashi) is tired. He works at a very small television production company, where his boss, Keita (Hideo Sakaki) gives him a new assignment. Recently, there has been a suicide within an apartment where some local high-school girls sealed themselves in a room and died from carbon-monoxide poisoning. Yu thinks the subject is too crass and exploitative for a television documentary, but Keita says that no one wants to see a sensitive treatment. Reluctantly along with his assistant Rie (Chisato Morishita), the two go and interview the locals and investigate the suicide scene. A high school student Nanami (Ayaka Maeda) shows at the scene while Yu and Rie are investigating. The young woman reveals to the duo that she was present at the suicide scene the night it happened; however, she was unable to go through with the pact and left. Nanami shows Yu a DVD and told her where she got it: Rikki, through her suicide message board. Yu asks to borrow the disc, and Nanami agrees.
The Suicide Manual is an odd film. It's a film like, say, David Cronenberg's Crash (1996) or Joel Schumacher's 8MM (1999) with superficial similarities structurally to both but really shares both film's depiction of fringe characters within a subculture that has an ethos totally unique to them. This type of cinema is often difficult for viewers: their characters and motivations are hard to relate to, and the viewer is often (perhaps intentionally) kept on the outside. While the subject matter of The Suicide Manual is as extreme as Crash or 8MM, its protagonist, Yu, is accessible. During his initial meeting with Nanami at the crime scene, Yu doesn't ask Nanami about why she would want to kill herself nor does he attempt to dissuade her from taking any future actions. The sense of fatigue which Yu projects at the beginning is really a mask for his own discontent and sadness. His investigation of the mysterious DVD leads him into an investigation about his own spiritual makeup. The sad seeds of suicide were already present within him, maybe deep down, and his exposure to Rikki's message on the disc perhaps allows those seeds to blossom.
The Suicide Manual plays primarily as a investigative mystery, as Yu tracks the source of the DVD, the identity of Rikki, and other surrounding facts. Fukutani drops another familiar trope within Japanese cinema into the mix: a supernatural element. Yu and Rie visit a medium who explains to the two that the souls of the dead who commit suicide will often possess the living in order to induce the unwilling into suicide. As the film plays out, Yu's reality begins changing as he gets more exposure within Rikki's subculture. As the methods of suicide on the disc are revealed, throughout the film, each becomes less familiar and more esoteric and cruel. Yu's life and what he perceives begins changing. The events are simply weird. Yu eventually posts on Rikki's board under a false name in order to infiltrate a suicide group. Yu's successful and the group meets at a restaurant. With drinks in front everyone at the table, one suggests poison and impulsively suggests drinking it right now in the restaurant. Yu and Rie leave as one begins to die. Two maudlin young women with their heads down in sadness reveal themselves in a perky smiling mood at Yu's car, right after. They would like a ride from Yu, who's leery at the two's violent mood change but agrees. They have an interesting confrontation a little later. The final third of the film is odd and unreal, as the investigative mystery has been either been solved or Yu's finds it by then irrelevant.
Fukutani's film is low-budget and shot-on-video. It has few locations but they are all authentic. It's a quiet film composed of static shots and little use of music. The production office location where Yu works for all I know could be Fukutani's actual production office to save money. The use of multiple genres tropes is interesting: investigative mystery, supernatural elements, and reality-based horror. Fukutani's treatment of these tropes comes from within the character Yu, and Fukutani uses his spiritual dilemma to alter the tone of the film as Yu deteriorates (?) or awakens (?). The viewer has to speculate from where this source the alteration in Yu's spiritual makeup is coming. Some quite horrific bits are included. It seems to me very doubtful that anyone could view this film as a promotion for suicide. In fact, the use of a documentary film maker as its lead character opens a sufficiently meta element to The Suicide Manual to keep it from being completely commercial and exploitative. In any case, the film is still very affecting. The Suicide Manual is a rightfully obscure film that the curious has to actively seek in order to see it.