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.

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.

Little Miss Period (2019) Shunsuke Shinada

Aoko (Fumi Nikaido) works as a journalist at a lifestyle magazine. As well as her demanding job and attempting to form a relationship with her romantic partner’s teenage daughter, she also has to deal with an unwanted visitor every month. This comes in the form of a large pink fluffy mascot in red pants, representing her period. Miss Period, as she is known, repeatedly punches her hard in the stomach, and Aoko has to lug her around on her back. Miss Period also occasionally puffs out soporific vapour making Aoko drowsy. In this world, every woman is followed around by a similar mascot, some larger and some smaller, but all irritating in their own way. Yamamoto (Sairi Ito) is a cleaner at this same company, still living with her parents, with her period being just one more frustration on top of the stress of work and her lack of a boyfriend. A third plot thread revolves around Aoko’s sister Hikaru (Risaki Matsukaze), and her boyfriend, as they begin a fledgling romance. These women must attempt to remain strong and reach their goals, while this invisible burden seems determined to disrupt their lives.

Based on the manga by Ken Koyama, “Little Miss Period” addresses head on an issue that is of major importance to women, yet often goes ignored by companies and even partners. Making the period a visible, comically designed and portrayed, mascot, which appears early on like a horror movie slasher creeping up on her victims, is a brilliant touch. Externalising this issue, showing the physical exertion and determination required to cope with it, makes for an entertaining way to deal with the various problems caused by it. Both Fumi Nikaido (Fly Me to the Saitama) and Sairi Ito (Love and Other Cults) get the chance to show off their comedic talents. Both are supremely likeable in their roles. Nikaido’s Aoko is a determined career woman, who will not let anything stand in her way. Working in a difficult environment she finds she has to pretend not to be affected by her period, instead putting on a brave face in front of her co-workers. Her relationship with Karin (Toyoshima Hana), the daughter of her widowed lover, is one of the most moving parts of the film, showing her trying to do her best for this girl who is unwilling to accept a new mother. Ito’s Yamamoto on the other hand is a virtual shut-in, resentful of everyone around her and painfully shy when confronted with the chance for love. Director Shunsuke Shinada does a great job of bringing what is a weird concept to life on the screen. The design of Miss Period (Seiri-chan in Japanese) is bizarre, and could so easily have derailed the narrative, but all the actors do such a tremendous job of acting alongside it that it becomes just another character in the drama. The film goes heavy on the comedy of what is happening, deflating the taboo around menstruation, cramps, nausea, drowsiness and other symptoms, with gentle humour. Also, the oblivious male characters who continue on as normal despite the women being weighed down or distracted by this, offers relatable humour for the male audience. The men in the film are also troubled by their own unwanted anxieties, in the form of Mr. Sex Drive (who appears spouting lewd pornographic phrases) and Little Boy Virgin (a cherubic figure representative of their lack of sexual maturity). The film’s surrealist, farcical comedy sits evenly alongside moments that are full of heart and genuinely moving.

While “Little Miss Period” is on one level a knockabout comedy, it also shines a light on an often taboo subject. Women still suffer discrimination in the workplace due to a lack of understanding and compassion on this issue. If the film gets people talking about this and understanding what could be done to alleviate some of the problems associated with it, then it will have performed a great service. Despite the message, the film is never po-faced, relying on humour to get its points across. As a film it is hugely entertaining, relying on physical gags and some excellent performances from the leads to develop believable characters and relatable comedy.

Fly me to the Saitama (2019) by Hideki Takeuchi)

Manami (Haruka Shimazaki) is on her way from Saitama to Tokyo for her wedding. Her parents (Brother Tom and Kumiko Aso) turn on the radio in the car for the long journey and are tuned into a radio drama telling the urban legend of the history of Saitama and Tokyo’s long struggles. The radio play takes us back to a time when Saitamese were subjected to various mistreatments and discriminations at the hands of the Tokyoites, discriminating against those from other prefectures. Rei (Gackt) attempts to fight this injustice and create an equal society where Saitamese are treated the same as people from Tokyo, while the head of a prestigious Tokyo University, Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) is determined to maintain the status quo. The fight for acceptance will also lead the people of Saitama into conflict with their other major rival, the citizens of Chiba Prefecture.

“Fly me to the Saitama” is an outrageous comedy based on the ridiculous premise of a fantasy war between Saitama and Tokyo. It throws so much at this surreal story, including influences from various genres. We see everything from Tokyo university students dressed in renaissance period clothing, science-fiction dressed police officers with rayguns, Edo-period costumes, even dinosaurs. The film will do just about anything for a joke, with funny costumes, scenarios, wordplay, and visual gags. Much of the comedy relies heavily on local stereotypes, though the comedy is so broad that almost all audiences will find something to enjoy, the more people know about these places, the more funny they are likely to find it. The actors do a great job, with Fumi Nikaido and Gackt playing their roles perfectly straight-faced despite the madness around them. The film is directed by Hideki Takeuchi, based on the manga by Mineo Maya, and with a screenplay by  Yuichi Tokunaga. The script and performances are ironically a celebration of the creativity and good humour of everyone involved, showing an ability to laugh at themselves.

The film is a broad comedy, taking themes of discrimination and prejudice and showing them to be utterly ridiculous. It allows people to laugh at local stereotypes in the confidence that they are so outrageous that they are never cruel. The finale of the film has a simple yet poignant message of bridging divides between people and not allowing ourselves to be separated by self-imposed borders. A hugely enjoyable film that puts everything into finding the humour in how people look at each other and themselves.

The World of Kanako (2014)

The World of Kanako (2014)

Akikazu Fujishima (Koji Yakusho) is an ex-police detective carrying a lot of psychological baggage. His estranged wife calls to tell him that their daughter Kanako (Nana Komatsu) has gone missing. He interrogates several of her former classmates and discovers that his daughter, who he has not seen for many years, is not at all the angelic figure of his imagination. Through flashbacks we are given the story of a high-school classmate of Kanako who is being bullied, played by Hiroya Shimizu. Kanako befriends him, using her influence with a powerful gang to protect him, but he is soon also to learn that she is not entirely as she seems. As Fujishima’s investigation continues he is drawn into a world of drugs, teenage prostitution, and gang violence as things threaten to spiral out of control. Far from a paragon of virtue himself, his quest comes to be an expression of his own guilt and death drive as much as a desire to find his daughter.

“The World of Kanako” is a film with two distinct flavours. One the one hand it is a look at the darker corners of the human psyche, with its damaged characters suffering from psychological issues, either natural or drug-induced, hints of alcohol abuse, drug and sexual abuse, much of which is tough to stomach (especially particular scenes of rape and torture). However, there are strong hints that this is no more than a tongue-in-cheek exploitation flick. The flashy title sequence, occasional music stings, the often casual approach to violence, are cause for confusion when set aside the seriousness of more harrowing scenes. The most positive reading of this is that it is representative of both Fujishima and Kanako’s mental state, being completely cold to what is happening, and looking on occasionally in horror, but more often in a darkly voyeuristic way. Director Tetsuya Nakashima won praise for his previous film “Confessions”, another adaptation from the novel by Kanae Minato. This film, based on the novel by Akio Fukamachi, is far more brutal than that, both in its story, and in the way it is told. Uncomfortable close-ups and high-octane editing, along with the films restless time-hopping structure, give the audience the feeling of being dragged along on this exciting yet disturbing ride. The central performance by Koji Yakusho is supremely bold and it is a testament to the strength of his portrayal of Fujishima Snr. that we are able to stay with him despite his often despicable actions. To say Fujishima fits the archetype of the tough, no nonsense cop operating outside the law really doesn’t do it justice. The film does not shy away from depicting the worst possible antihero. We increasingly come to realise that he is not imbued with any real positive traits. Nana Komatsu is great as Kanako, though we are never able to fully understand her, she again does a superb job of an antihero who seems to posses the same nihilistic spirit as her father. There are great supporting performances from a stellar cast that includes Joe Odagiri, Fumi Nikaido and Ai Hashimoto. The music is a blend of classical and electronic dance music that typifies the competing aspects of the film, on the one hand brash and offensive and on the other stylish and contemplative.

The film is a dark examination of the father-daughter relationship and deals with several issues that people may find disturbing. In some ways the cocktail of drugs, gangs, violence, paedophilia, bullying and everything else the film throws in come to represent a sort of obscene representation of the absolute worst of humanity. It is against this background that our characters are operating. They have no choice when it comes to living in this world, they can either embrace it or try to ignore it, but these things will continue happening. Kanako herself seems to harness amorality as a survival instinct, using her lack of empathy to navigate a horrific world of violence and abuse. Fujishima is very similar. He has no qualms about abusing, even raping women, and is irredeemably self-centred. The main difference is that he feels he has found a purpose. Both characters understand the world to be a meaningless place, with power the only real dynamic worth worrying about. Kanako’s notion of freedom, including the freedom to destroy others, is one that is a terrifying prospect. The film sets out to shock and it does so time and again, not only with its visuals but on the level of the ideas it presents. Highly recommended for fans of transgressive cinema that pulls no punches. A bold and brutal take on the detective genre.