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.

Ainu Mosir (2020) by Takeshi Fukunaga

Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) is a young boy living in the small town of Akan in Hokkaido. He wants to escape from his rural hometown and Ainu heritage, telling his mother that he feels he is constantly reminded of his culture in their songs, festivals and traditions that are an integral part of life in their community. Having lost his father, Kanto’s confusion about whether to embrace or shun his heritage, takes on a greater personal significance for him; the absence of a paternal role model leaves him feeling cast adrift and having to his own path in life. Kanto is not without help on this journey of self-discovert. His mother (Emi Shimokura), who runs an Ainu craft store, is caring, though hurt at her son’s seeming disinterest in his culture. He also has a substitute father-figure in the shape of Debo (Debo Akibe), an Ainu elder, who attempts to teach him their traditions. Debo fully embraces their heritage, wearing his culture as a badge of honour and believing in the absolute necessity of preserving their traditions and values. Along with others, he is preparing for a cultural festival that has not been performed for many decades, in which they must raise a bear cub before killing it. The spirit of the god inside the bear will then return to the heavens carrying word of their good deeds and other gods will come to inhabit the animals of their lands.

Born in Hokkaido, writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga shows great respect for the native Ainu. He worked with the local community in creating the script, and cast Ainu locals. The film documents various aspects of Ainu culture, music, dress, festivals, traditions and beliefs. We also see the friction, and subtle discrimination, between the Japanese and the Ainu; with Kanto’s mother being praised by oblivious tourists on her excellent Japanese. As well as insights into the Ainu culture, the film also shows the difficulty faced in attempting to hold on to these traditions. The Ainu are taking classes to learn the Ainu language, and must read from scripts when performing their rituals. It is a constant struggle to keep these cultures alive as languages and traditions are forgotten or eradicated. At heart “Ainu Mosir” is a coming-of-age story with Kanto facing the added pressure from those around him to take on the role of an ‘Ainu’ individual. Kanto himself is a typical teen, playing in a rock band and watching Hollywood films. He feels pigeonholed as an ‘Ainu’, railroaded into becoming what is expected of him, where he wants a future of wider possibilities. He sees his culture as restrictive; while Debo sees it as a source of pride, his deep roots giving him confidence and a sense of identity. Casting Ainu actors in the main roles helps lend an authenticity to the film and genuine emotion to the performances. The cinematography by Sean Price Williams, with stunning vistas of rural Hokkaido and the passing of the seasons, provides the perfect background for this story of people shaped by their environment.

‘Ainu Mosir’ is a significant film for what it says about the value of culture and the difficulties experienced by native peoples who feel their past is being erased. However, it wears this lightly and never lectures the audience on matters such as colonialism, xenophobia, racism, and the struggle for the rights of indigenous groups. Rather these issues are refracted through the personal story of Kanto and his own difficulties coming to terms with his heritage and the loss of his father. While the film focusses on a specific culture, its message is universal. A worthwhile film for its moving portrayal of a young teen at a crossroads in life, who must learn what is important to him, while navigating the turbulent waters of family, culture and heritage.

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.

Shady (2012) by Ryohei Watanabe

Misa (Aya Banjo) is a loner at her high-school, bullied because of her looks and given the nickname Pooh (after Winnie the Pooh), her only solace is in the biology club of which she is the sole member and where she looks after a goldfish called Kintaro. That is until Izumi (Izumi Okamura) comes into her life. Izumi seems so unlike Misa, being cute and outgoing, but she is also alienated from the class, as the other popular girls are jealous of her looks. The two form a firm friendship built on their outsider status. The mystery of their missing classmate, Aya (Ayumi Seko), who along with Marina (Reo Saionji) is one of the class bullies, looms large as Misa and Izumi become more closely connected and things take a horrifying turn as Misa realises her new friend may be hiding a dark secret.

Writer-director Ryohei Watanabe’s debut feature, “Shady” is a taut thriller that builds tension throughout. It is a story that builds on strong characters and the everyday anxieties and paranoias of high-schoolers, expertly weaving in darker threads. Aya Banjo gives an incredible performance as Misa, shy and awkward yet with a resilience earned through years of torment. We are drawn into her world, her suffering, and her joy at finding a friend and her insecurities are always bubbling just below the surface. Izumi Okamura is also exceptional in her role, a bold and brash teenager but with a chip on her shoulder at how she is ostracized from her classmates. Izumi undergoes a transformation as the film progresses and we see character traits develop from troubling to terrifying. This is the first acting role for both; Aya Banjo is best known as a singer (under the name Minpi*b) and Izumi Okamura was working as a model when cast. The director picked both for their look and wrote characters that closely resembled his image of them. Their chemistry is believable and their conversations capture perfectly a tentative high-school friendship. The direction works well for the film and shows off the best of the actresses. What begins as a high-school friendship drama soon turns into a psychological thriller and the angled camera and use of long uncomfortable takes helps draw out the unpleasant yet inescapable nature of the situations Misa finds herself in. The film touches on a number of themes, many that are not explicitly stated but glint out in moments of ambiguity. One such scene is when Izumi paints Misa’s toenails, an act of girlish bonding that is given almost erotic overtones as Izumi slips beneath the covers and Misa moans as she blows softly on her feet. As with much of the horror in the film suggestion proves to be more powerful than straightforward attempts to shock.

“Shady” builds on many thriller themes and plot points, with its strength being in the two fantastic lead performances that draw you in emotionally before introducing the darker tone of the latter scenes. It is a film about friendship, loneliness, loyalty and bullying among other things. The relationship between the two girls is conventional in many ways, thrown together by chance despite their differences, and the two actresses do a great job in creating a sense of normality while hinting at something more worrying. The film takes what are everyday fears or emotions and turns them into something darker. The final third of the film is packed with several twists and moments that make you reconsider what you have seen previously. The girl’s feelings of rejection, acceptance, anger, helplessness, are all expertly portrayed and help create rounded characters. A subtly affecting thriller about teenage anxiety and the joys and dangers of friendship.