Lesson of Evil (2012) by Takashi Miike

            Takashi Miike gives us a violent crime thriller following a deranged psychopath in this gory film adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s novel. The film begins with a scene in which two parents anxiously discuss their problematic son, right before he murders both of them with a knife. We then move forward in time to find Hasumi (Hideaki Ito) working as a high-school English teacher. He is charismatic and well-liked by his students. Following incidents of cheating at the school, Hasumi suggests perhaps interrupting the signal from their mobile phones during tests, which would be illegal but would also prohibit such cheating. Cheating is far from the only problem at the school, with one teacher sexually harassing a female student, and another involved in an affair with a male pupil. Hasumi also soon reveals himself to be far from the ideal mentor his students imagine, himself using his knowledge of the sexually harassed student to first scare away her abuser, and then to begin an affair with her himself. Hasumi comes under suspicion by another teacher, Tsurii (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), and several students, who believe he may have been involved in a rash of suicides at a previous school he worked for.

            The first half of the film plays out as a high-school drama, with elements of a murder mystery, as we delve deeper into the character of Hasumi and discover more of his secrets.  Just as you are beginning to piece together a semblance of what might be termed normality in this world, the film completely throws this plot out of the window and turns into an almost comedic rampage of death and destruction, as Hasumi begins to dispatch the students of the school one by one with a shotgun. Ito gives a great performance as evil incarnate who is able to mask his sadistic tendencies with a veneer of respectability. The film also features a great cast of young actors as the school. Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido, who worked together previously in Himizu, KENTA and Elina Mizuno all bring a vitality to their roles as believable high-schoolers trapped in an incredibly dangerous situation.

The film is beautifully shot, with some fantastically atmospheric images and the direction holds your attention throughout. There are striking visuals that add a depth to the film beyond what is in the script. Examples of this include the contrast between the permanently grey shadowy look of Hasumi’s house, and the brightly lit school scenes during the day. Later in the film there is a great tonal discrepancy that emphasises the film’s dark satire, as Hasumi rampages around a school colourfully adorned with balloons and handmade ornaments, often cast in red light.

“Lesson of Evil” can be enjoyed as a straight-forward slasher film, with an evil monster brutally dispatching innocent teenagers. However, the film demands consideration in its use of folkloric and theological allusion. Hasumi is troubled by the appearance of two ravens, we later see him researching Odins corvid companions Munnin (memory) and Huginn (thought). Hasumi kills the raven he names Huginn, but continues to dwell on the presence of Munnin. This is perhaps some reference to Hasumi’s lack of compassion and his senseless crimes, albeit with his past sins being inescapable. While it is easy to see the film as pure exploitation cinema, it plays both sides of the aisle, indulging in this while also offering a perfect satire and critique of our obsession with violence. The high-school massacre at the end of the film goes on so long that you are forced to consider your reaction to it. Ito’s crimes transform from being blackly comic with the first unexpected killing, through terror when you realise that he is not going to stop, and finally a sort of numb sense of inevitability that you are going to witness the slaughter of every innocent child at the school. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of violence, creating a sense of uneasiness as it flips between moments of humour (such as Hasumi being temporarily deafened by the sound of his gun), to horror as we see students cowering in fear. We see several moments in the film that may be a direct attack on American gun culture and the tragedies stemming from it: these include Hasumi’s own past as a Harvard graduate, his use of English, and later in the film a scene in which he trips over an American flag as part of a moon landing display. In fact this entire sequence of slaughter is rich with background details that speak to the waste of talent and creativity that such killings result in. We are also left to ruminate as the title of the film suggests on what we mean by evil, whether and how it can be defeated. A number of characters plead with Hasumi for an explanation of his actions, but none is forthcoming. At the end we are left only with the horrific aftermath and no clearly picture of what caused it. Again, this may be an attempt to poke fun at the notion that killing and violence can be understood rationally or that crimes such as this can be ameliorated by context.

As with many of Miike’s films, “Lesson of Evil” blends a number of genres, making you unsure what to make of it at times. In the end you are left to reflect on your own experience and impressions of the film, and perhaps come to a deeper understanding of yourself through it. As the killer says to the police in the film, it is not his job to explain why he has done what he has done, that is for them to do. The same might be said of the audience. It is not necessarily the artist’s job to explain themselves clearly, it is your job, as the viewer, to consider what you have seen and your reactions to it and see what that tells you about society and yourself.

Smoking (2018)

An unlikely group of assassins work together to give various petty gangsters their come-uppance in this blackly comic crime series. Sabe (Ryo Ishibashi), Hifumin (Kaito Yoshimura), Goro (Tomomi Maruyama) and Haccho (Nobuaki Kaneko) are four homeless individuals who provide a service to those with the money to pay; namely killing gangsters and other ne’er-do-wells. Their gimmick is that Sabe, who has some medical training, flays the tattoos off their victims backs, delivering them as grisly proof that they have eliminated their target. As the series progresses we learn that Sabe was formerly employed by a shady organization known as The Cleaner, who also specialised in underworld killings. The other three members of his team, the mute teen Hirofumin, intelligent and kind; the heavyweight prize-fighter Goro, whose terrifying proportions strike fear in their victims; and the sharply dressed Haccho, each have their own tragic backstory that brought them together one by one to form this team known as “Smoking”.

The story is based on a manga by Iwaki Hiroshi and its origins show in the colourful characters and outrageous set-ups for each episode. The four leads are almost heroic archetypes, a sort of super team all bringing their unique skills to the mix. The series is twelve episodes, each under a half an hour, in which they are usually presented with a new job to undertake. As the series progresses we learn more about each character, and the over-arching story of The Cleaner and Sabe’s past bring some unity to the story as they are all drawn into a violent showdown with this gang. There is plenty to enjoy in “Smoking” if you don’t take things too seriously. The set-ups are ridiculous, taking real world criminal activity and exaggerating it into something more fantastical. Examples of this include a gang that has an entire hospital full of elderly people who they have hooked on drugs; or an underground martial arts betting ring, where the fighters are also pumped full of narcotics before beating each other to death. The idea of peeling off the tattoos of each victim is a unique touch, showing that our protagonists are just as brutal as the irredeemable gangsters they take down. The four leads are perfect in their roles. Ryo Ishibashi (Suicide Club, Audition) lends an air of credibility to the outlandish story. Kaito Yoshimura (Love and Other Cults) does a good job as the largely silent and sympathetic Hifumin. Tomomi Maruyama and Nobuaki Kaneko are no stranger to television dramas and do a great job with the roles of Haccho and Goro, offering much of the comedy in their bickering and both excelling when their stories take a dark and tragic turn.

“Smoking” occasionally suffers from certain limitations of television drama and budget constraints. The pacing is uneven at times; perhaps unsurprising since each episode has to be wrapped up in such a short time. This could perhaps have been helped by running some of the stories over multiple episodes. It certainly helps build tension later in the series when we begin to get recurring characters and the semblance of an over-arching plot. Often there will be little discussion of what their plan is, which makes things seem matter-of-course and again does little to provide a sense of threat. Often the characters will put themselves in dangerous situations that draws their intelligence into question. These are clearly televisual shortcuts to ramp up a sense of danger, or bring all the required characters together in a particular place, but again it undermines any real sense of threat. This is not always the case and there are episodes that work very well in the short episodic format, such as the MMA betting ring episode. The direction and look of the show can also be hit and miss, with stylish shots and moments reminiscent of heroic crime dramas followed by very mundane scenes of the characters in their makeshift home, or out on the streets. It excels when it strives for a manga aesthetic and this is definitely something that could have been more prominent. The series is clearly set in a hyper-stylised version of reality, so trips itself up in going for a more believable look at times.

Crime thrillers usually follow either the cops or the criminals, whereas “Smoking” follows a group who are somewhere on the border between good and evil. On the surface their actions are horrific, killing and skinning their victims, but they are doing it for the greater good by ridding the city of violent gangsters. As Sabe flays his victims he usually delivers a short speech about peeling away their skin to reveal the monster within. It is a show that asks us to question our understanding of crime and society. The tattoos that mark these individuals are a sign of their criminality, but their sins cannot be so easily stripped away as their flesh. As things progress our natural sympathy with the protagonists is strengthened as we learn about what brought them together, each having had dealings with some criminal element. The central premise, of a group who are paid to kill gangsters, suggests an interesting irony in how we deal with crime in society. By doing this work, dealing out this punishment, that may be deemed good or even necessary, they are lowering themselves into the mud along with their victims, becoming the very monsters they are trying to eliminate. “Smoking” is well worth a watch for fans of crime dramas, with an excellent cast and a story that is fast-paced and packed with melodrama.

Ichi the Killer (2001) by Takashi Miike

A masochistic mobster and a sadistic assassin are pitted against one another in this gory crime story from Takashi Miike. When a yakuza boss goes missing, his chief enforcer Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) goes in search of clues. Kakihara has violent sado-masochistic tendencies, as we can see from the numerous scars across his face, his mouth being a wide slit held together with piercings. Kakihara comes to learn that the killer of his boss was one Ichi (Nao Omori), a man who has been brainwashed into being a heartless killer, with sadistic inclinations. As they draw closer to a confrontation, we are given a series of gruesome, violent, stomach churning scenes in one of the finest examples of Japanese exploitation cinema.

Not a film for the faint-hearted or those easily repulsed by gory special effects, the director Takashi Miike blends cartoonish violence, horror, pitch black comedy, along with realism in an unsettling portrayal of the darker drivers of human behaviour. The film is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto and the characters feel very much like comic book heroes and villains that have landed in a gritty, crime-infested Tokyo familiar from many yakuza films. This sense of the fantastical is emphasised in the use of colour, Ichi’s superhero-like costume, and helps make the content more palatable. The direction moves from fast paced action to more sedate scenes of character interaction. There is definitely a chaotic punk feel early on, with jarring cuts and music, and a handheld camera racing through the neon-washed streets swarming with people. We also see high-angled framing and off-kilter action that brings out the comic-book feel and helps bring the audience into this anarchic world where anything goes and the only certainty is pain and violence. The film pushes the boundaries of good taste at times, with infamous scenes involving a severed tongue, reference to rape, domestic abuse, and scenes of torture. However, the film holds together as a solid crime drama, with the central narrative being easy to follow. A fantastic supporting cast includes Alien Sun, a Chinese prostitute; Shinya Tsukamoto as Ichi’s mysterious handler Jijii, and various gang members played by Sabu, Shun Sugata, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, and Suzuki Matsuo who plays twins Jiro and Saburo.

It would be easy to dismiss this film as a violent, gory thriller, made with the intention of pushing the audience to the limit of what is acceptable. For those willing to examine the film carefully, there are deeper meanings here. Ichi could almost be considered the Id, driven solely by violent and sexual urges, confused, struggling to establish some kind of morality in his disordered existence. Kakihara also appears as a metaphor for human desire for violence and suffering; he is a comment on viewers of this film, who wish to sit through something so uncomfortable, to be shown the absolute lowest, most grotesque imagery, in order for some kind of spiritual gratification. There are also numerous allusions to the relationship between violence and sex, familial relationships and the abuse of power that can occur within them. Both Ichi and Kakihara are products of their environment, deeply disturbed individuals who typify the dog-eat-dog mentality of society. Worth watching for the creative scenes of carnage, but also worthy of consideration at a deeper level.

Himizu (2012) by Sion Sono

The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, that devastated the North-east coast of Honshu and badly damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant, left many without homes and jobs and in a state of despair. “Himizu” begins with scenes of the destruction left behind: buildings reduced to rubble, personal possessions abandoned, and lonely figures wandering through the wasteland of a once populous town. Sumida (Shota Sometani) is a middle-school student whose family boat business has stalled in the wake of the tragic events. His parents are of little help, his mostly absent father returning only to demand money to furnish his own debts, and his mother finally giving up to run off with a fling. Sumida’s only companions are a group of homeless individuals whom he allows to stay by the boathouse and use the shower. His classmate Keiko Chazawa (Fumi Nikaido), is obsessed with Sumida, writing down and pasting his words on her bedroom walls; enamoured by his ordinariness and refusal to conform to the positive world view espoused by their teacher. Keiko decides to help him make the boathouse successful again, despite him repeatedly rejecting her assistance. Keiko’s mother is unsupportive, telling her daughter she is preparing a noose for her to hang herself and make her parent’s lives easier. Despite this Keiko remains positive, encouraging Sumida not to give up and trying to help him out of his depression.

Based on the manga by Minoru Furuya, writer-director Sion Sono creates an uncompromising drama set in the post-tsunami era: a dystopia that is nevertheless grounded in reality. The script was written before the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, but was altered to feature this as a central element. The tragic events of 2011 loom large in the film, which uses its protagonists to tell a story that reflects the feelings of many. The financial ruin and feelings of depression that beset Sumida will be familiar to those who suffered. Meanwhile, Keiko represents the feelings of hope that they can rebuild and that however dark things are there is light at the end of the tunnel. Shota Sometani captures the cold, detached malaise of a young man who has suffered beyond his years, with tumultuous feelings of anger and unfairness repressed as he tries to come to terms with his fate. Fumi Nikaido provides the perfect foil as his gleefully hyperactive stalker, who bears her own sorrows lightly. A talented supporting cast includes Tetsu Watanabe as a simple-minded yet kind-hearted homeless man; Megumi Kagurazaka as Keiko’s uncaring mother; and Denden as a tough yakuza boss. The film’s narrative moves between the main characters and gives us a stark portrayal of a society that is trying to rebuild from the debris of disaster. Despite the generally downbeat tone of the film, there are moments of levity and humour sprinkled throughout, with the homeless individuals providing much of the comic relief. The direction and cinematography by Sohei Tanikawa is exceptional, pulling you through a chaotic emotional landscape with a visceral sense of the pain the characters are feeling. The shots of the earthquake-stricken locations need little extra to evoke feelings of upset at the realisation of what has been lost; and the film manages to retain this powerful, provocative air throughout, with the characters being sympathetic victims of the tragedy and emblematic of the anguish caused by it. The film features a classical score of Mozart and Barber that further heightens this intense dramatic quality.

 As well as dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake, the film also touches on other topics, such as domestic violence, suicide, nuclear power, the far right, abuse of women, and mental health. It questions humanity’s response to such tragedies, with secondary characters discussing how they personally profited from the devastation. Later in the film we see characters turning to theft and violence, further emphasising the fact that bad people will continue to exist. In contrast, Sumida is a character who is unable to pick himself back up following the loss, his feelings of being trapped and seeing no future for himself are a powerful representation of the crippling effects of depression. The question for the characters is what they do with their own lives; whether they allow themselves to be overcome with despondency and hopelessness, or strive to change their situation, in short how they go on living after such a traumatic experience. The poem that opens the film, read by Keiko, and is repeated by Sumida near the end, talks about people judging others while being unable to understand themselves. This can be read as a message to people to believe in yourself, to examine your own will, hopes and dreams and to follow them no matter how difficult it might seem. The film offers few easy answers, with an enigmatic ending that provokes deep rumination on the many themes raised by the story. An incredible work that documents the loss, in every sense, felt after the earthquake, and encourages us to consider how we go on.

Confessions (2010) by Tetsuya Nakashima

A stylish psychological thriller that exposes the ever-present darkness as the heart of humanity, “Confessions” tells the story of a school teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), whose 4 year old daughter Manami (Mana Ashida) is found dead in a swimming pool. While the police verdict is accidental drowning, Moriguchi knows that two of her own students bear responsibility for Minami’s death. Shuya Watanabe (Yukito Nishii) is a talented student who has a nihilistic outlook on life. Abandoned by his mother at a young age, he is narcissistic and lives only to prove his superior intelligence in the hopes of winning his absent mother’s attention and affection. He recruits his classmate, the underachieving and unsuspecting Naoki Shimomura (Kaoru Fujiwara), in hopes that the two of them will commit a crime that will finally gain him the respect he feels he deserves. Moriguchi tells the class that she will leave her job and, as her students are unable to be punished for crimes as minors, she has taken it upon herself to get revenge for the murder of her daughter. The film begins with Moriguchi’s story and moves onto the lives of the two boys responsible for her daughter’s death, as well as a third classmate, the enigmatic introvert Mizuki (Ai Hashimoto), both before and after the incident. Each new perspective draws us deeper into this twisted story of murder and revenge.

The film is based on the book by Kanae Minato with a script by director Tetsuya Nakashima. The story is divided into distinct sections, each narrated in part by a different character, occasionally achronological with overlapping moments from different perspectives. The opening monologue delivered by Takako Matsu’s experience acting in theatrical productions shows as she builds tension with her delivery of a long opening monologue. This scene, which takes up a large portion of the first half of the film is a fantastic introduction, setting up the dynamics of the characters and their personalities, the central themes, and a lot of exposition in an entertaining way. The young actors who play the three leads do an incredible job with difficult material. Yukito Nishii embodies the fears of parents and teachers everywhere as the irredeemably sadistic Shuya. Kaoru Fujiwara is sympathetic as the helpless accessory to murder who later reveals a darker side to his character. Ai Hashimoto does a good job with a relatively small role as Mizuki, a confused adolescent; and Yoshiteru Terada  offers some light relief as the oblivious replacement teacher Yoshiteru “Werther” Terada, attempting to raise the spirits of the class following Moriguchi’s departure. The film is shot in a highly stylized way with liberal use of slow motion and the plot unfolds at a crawl that further accentuates the feeling of dread, allowing characters to languish in their suffering or feelings of regret. A subdued colour palette and melancholy score echo this bleak tone. Almost each scene plays out in a half light that reflects the nihilistic worldview of the characters; with neither light nor dark, but a hopeless Sisyphean grind of life unfolding day by interminable day. With a strong original story, the cinematography and direction are used to create an artistic impression of what is unfolding, with striking visuals that enhance the force of the narrative; such as Shuya’s construction of a clock that runs backwards, or the cat and kitten outside his apartment.

“Confessions” is a film that deals with several difficult themes. The death of a small child will draw instant sympathy from the audience. It is a wrong that demands to be righted in any just world. A verdict of accidental death removes any hope of retribution for the crime, forcing Moriguchi to revenge herself upon her two students. By showing the story of Shuya and Naoki, the film asks us to consider their own right to life and what led them to this crime; also how blame is to be apportioned and what punishment may be justified. Mizuki’s character highlights the turmoil of conflicting adolescent emotions, her character sympathising with a schoolgirl who killed her family. Throughout the characters ask themselves what life is truly worth, each of them so lost in their own subjective realities and borne along by feelings of hurt and hate that they are unable to see that they are causing more suffering through their actions. Although the film muddies the morality of its characters, throughout it retains a strong message on the importance of human life. While it is almost unbearably bleak in its outlook, there are faint rays of hope that shine through; hints that things could be different, that ideals such as forgiveness and redemption are not unattainable.