Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lesson of the Evil

Takashi Miike is a force of nature. Still only in his mid-fifties, he’s directed almost a hundred features. He’s slowed down a bit in the last half-decade, only making two or three films a year. Compared to, say, 2001 when he directed eight movies, including three bona fide classics (‘Visitor Q’, ‘Ichi the Killer’ and ‘The Happiness of the Katakuris’), and presumably didn’t eat or sleep let alone consider taking any annual leave. He’s also brazenly confident in any number of genres: horror, comedy, thriller, western, musical, legal dramas, samurai epics, road movies, and children’s films.

Yes, he’s prolific and tirelessly creative, is Takashi Miike. He’s also no stranger to controversy. In fact, controversy probably hangs out with him most evenings, getting drunk and egging him on.

‘Lesson of the Evil’, made in 2012, is an adaptation of a novel by Yusuke Kishi, an award-winning crime writer who has had several of his works filmed in his native Japan (so far only ‘The Crimson Labyrinth’ has been translated for the English-language market). Whether Kishi’s novel, published in 2010, treats its subject matter with as much black humour as Miike brings to the adaptation is something I can only speculate on. 

It’s probably time, 200 words into this review, to cut to the chase and talk about what ‘Lesson of the Evil’ is about. And since it’s nigh on impossible to have any useful discussion to that effect without giving away critical plot points germane to the sustained finale that occupies the last forty minutes or so, let’s hoist the jolly SPOILER ALERT (applies for the remainder of the article).

‘Lesson in the Evil’ is set at a private school where, despite their entitled lifestyles, the students experience bullying and, in one case, sexual harassment, while the staff try to determine how an exam-cheating system is being operated. Snivelly physics teacher Tsurii (Mitsuro Fukikoshi) intuits that smartphones are being clandestinely used to email questions to conspirators. Popular English teacher Hasumi (Hideaki Itō) favours using a cell phone jammer, which the principal objects to on the grounds of two wrongs (the jammer being illegal) not making a right. The scene marks out Hasumi as kind of cool, ready to beat the cheats at their own game and throw away the rule book in order to do so. His second intervention into the lives of the student body is when he assists winsome student Miya (Erina Mizuno) to turn the tables on a blackmailer who is demanding certain favours. Miike takes a slow burn approach with these early developments, with Hasumi shaping up as a sharp-witted guardian angel type, albeit one with unorthodox methods. That he’s a good-looking mo’fo’ with a nice line in rock star cool only makes him more appealing as a protagonist. 

Then, with the suddenness that’s one of the trademarks of a Miike film, the rug is pulled, bodies start piling up and Hasumi enthusiastically reciprocates Miya’s affections, blackmailing fellow paedophile teacher Kume (Takehiro Hira) for the use of his swish apartment in which to conduct their assignations. I’m not sure which is greater: the chutzpah, the hypocrisy or the offensiveness potential to any audience member who isn’t a fully fledged sociopath.

And the most contentious sequence is yet to come. What all of Hasumi’s machinations are leading up to is a high-school massacre for which he intends to frame Kume. In case you’re wondering what all of this is in the service of, there’s a subplot exploring Hasumi’s past and his motivations. Maybe “exploring” isn’t the right word: Miike’s approach is more impressionistic. He gives us a specific reference to Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, repeatedly uses ‘Mack the Knife’ on the soundtrack (in both English and Japanese versions), makes a big point of Hasumi having spent some time in America, and lets the audience extrapolate from there.

Ah, yes. Hasumi’s time in America. Let’s pause here to consider a cultural comparison. School shootings are non-existent in Japan; cursory internet research before I sat down to write this review suggests that the last time a school massacre occurred was in Osaka in 2001. The assailant killed seven children and thirteen others and two teachers with a knife. I won’t bother linking to it, but a list on Wikipedia of school shootings in America takes us from 1764 to the present day and demonstrates that nutcases cut loose with firearms on American campuses with depressing frequency, the worst being the Virginia Tech massacre which cost 33 lives (not including the perpetrator’s suicide). In the year ‘Lesson of the Evil’ was made, there were 12 school shootings accounting for 42 deaths and 16 people injured. In Japan, gun ownership is rigidly controlled, handguns are verboten and even air guns require psychological testing, criminal checks and a labyrinthine degree of bureaucracy, not to mention having the police turn up every year to check you’re storing the thing properly and having to account for every single round of ammunition you fire. In America … well, let’s just say attitudes to gun ownership drift towards the opposite end of the scale.

In a particularly telling flashback, Hasumi attracts the attention of Dave (Daniel Genalo), a gentleman of fine American stock and a dedicated practitioner of murder. Eventually Hasumi terminates Dave because he simply enjoys killing too much. It’s tempting to interpret this scene as the satirical key to the film and take Hasumi’s high school massacre as a relocation to Japan of a uniquely American phenomenon. I have no idea what impact ‘Lesson of the Evil’ had on American audiences as I deliberately stay away from other reviews when I write up films for this blog, but even as an English viewer – where we don’t have school shootings (our national shame is paedophilia by privileged or celebrity abusers protected by successive Conservative governments) – I found the final stretch of ‘Lesson of the Evil’ brutally difficult to watch. Not because Miike renders the killings in documentary-style verité, but because he opts for a kinetic, hyper-stylised aesthetic reminiscent of the heightened black comedy of ‘Battle Royale’. But whereas ‘Battle Royale’ delivered its horrors within the context of dystopian satire, ‘Lesson of the Evil’ simply portrays, albeit in as iconic a manner as possible, a lunatic with a shotgun, stalking the corridors and classrooms of a school, intent on killing every one of its pupils.

I’ve seen plenty of black comedies that are so near the knuckle, they’ve practically gouged the knuckle out. I’ve laughed at questionable things and questioned myself for doing so. I’m no stranger to laughter in the dark. ‘Lesson of the Evil’ goes beyond laughter in the dark. It laughs in the stunned silence that follows something so awful that comprehension shuts down.

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