Blackboard (1986) by Kaneto Shindo

The body of a high-school boy is found in a river tied to a stolen bicycle. Two of his classmates soon come forward to confess to his murder, claming that they were victims of bullying by the boy. While the school authorities wish to maintain their reputation, denying all suggestions of bullying; a reporter sets out to uncover the truth, speaking to the boy’s family, homeroom teacher, and others surrounding the case. Through a series of flashbacks we see the murder victim Takeshi (Terutake Tsuji), believed to be the leader of a gang of ‘punks’ by some at the school, and his friendship with Tomoko (Ryoko Sano), a victim of bullying herself. We also learn about Takeshi’s life; and attempts by his teacher Mr. Tomita (Ryuzo Tanaka) to steer him away from the path he is on.

Writer-director Kaneto Shindo, delivers a powerful dissection of an age-old problem: bullying. Opening with the grim, documentary-like discovery of the body, complete with dramatic news reports, the case is soon resolved, leaving us with only the question of why it happened, and whether it could have been avoided. Shindo maintains an anthropological distance from his subject, largely allowing characters to speak to various opinions on the matter. There are those who want to ignore evidence of bullying; others who suggest it is the children’s upbringing, or societal problems, that are to blame; and through the character of Tomoko (saved herself from bullying by Takeshi) we see a nuanced picture of the bully, struggling with his own issues, having difficulty at school, and living in a single-parent household. The film discusses all of the various factors as well as the devastating impact bullying can have on individuals, and brings home in its final scenes the tragedy of lives that can be lost to it in extreme cases. The film highlights the subjectivity of any attempts to provide easy answers solve these sociological issues. In particular, the sequences in the school staffroom where we see everyone offering their opinions on what should be done with the children. However, it is at its most powerful when we see the bullying in the context of the cruelty of society as a whole, in particular the sequence of Takeshi’s widowed mother cleaning toilets and being forced off benefits for attempting to make extra money. The film suggests that perhaps society should look to the way it treats its members if it truly wants to solve this issue. The wrecked boat by the shore is another moment of visual poetry, the discarded, useless shell providing shelter for Takeshi’s gang, ironically grafittied with the word “dream”.

“Blackboard” avoids placing blame on any one individual, suggesting that it is a confluence of factors that lead to bullying and that its aftermath is not easily avoided. The inclusion of Tomoko, a victim herself, is not intended to create sympathy for Takeshi, but to add another dimension to a character who comes to symbolise the death of hope for a generation. One of the most striking lines is a father telling his son that he is weak for being bullied, and that he should simply become a bully himself. If this is the mindset that children are taught, then the tragedy of this drama becomes a sad inevitability. “Blackboard” is a challenging watch but a bold attempt to understand the deeper causes of a damaging societal issue.