Review: Confessions (2010)

Tetsuya Nakashima kicked off the 2000s with the colorful but ultimately vapid film Kamikaze Girls (2005), which did not warrant all of the raves that it received upon its release. Despite the fact that he began to make films in the late 1990s, including two feature films — Natsu jikan no otonatachi (1997) and Beautiful Sunday (1998) — these films have yet to go abroad in any format whatsoever to be seen and examined by a broader audience. Kamikaze Girls paved the way for Nakashima’s name to become familiar to both Japanese film fans in particular and film festival patrons in general outside of Japan. In its wake have come the interesting deconstruction and parody of the suffering female narrative that is Memories of Matsuko (2006), the solid star-studded family film Paco and the Magical Book (2008), and most recently, the tour-de-force revenge film that is the unforgettable and thus far most brilliant film by Nakashima, Confessions (2010).

Confessions is about a middle school teacher, Yuko, who elaborates a revenge scheme on her students, in particular the two boys responsible for the death of her 5-year-old daughter. In the process, the film presents a devastating portrait and perspective of school life, the force of emotions and violence that ferment and sustain it, and the misguided parenting (to put it mildly) that is part and parcel of the socio-psychological pressure and violence of this world, which erupts among students against each other, teachers, parents, and institutions. The film begins with Yuko’s “confession,” succeeded by the confessions of other parties: one of the boys responsible for Yuko’s daughter’s death; the mother of one of these boys; a fellow female student who gets (too) close to one of these boys. Though the film may be neatly divided into these confessions, with each succeeding monologue the overall film becomes ever more narratively knotted, resulting in a microcosmic look at a culture of unabashed (self-)loathing. All the while, Yuko follows through with her revenge on the two boys, culminating most significantly during a school assembly.

Though it is not necessary to have seen Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko in particular to appreciate Confessions, they constitute an interesting triptych with regards to female subjectivity and experience. For one thing, they share the characteristic of being adaptations of best-selling Japanese novels, each one a little darker in tone than the previous one. Furthermore, they present increasingly complex sketches of a woman’s inner life, especially after Kamikaze Girls. Memories of Matsuko is simultaneously a deconstruction and parody of the melodramatic, tragic figure of the woman and her descent from decency to abjection in a patriarchal society. It begins with the death of Matsuko and recalls the ups and downs of her life, told in flashbacks, and her unflagging hope in love. (This type of film finds its most heightened expression in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu [1952], also presented in flashbacks.) Memories of Matsuko’s characteristics of multiple temporalities, flashbacks, and numerous peripheral characters to trace the inner depths of the spirited Matsuko readily anticipate Confessions’ dense, multilayered structure.

Nakashima takes these thematic and formal concerns to a wonderfully explosive level with Confessions. And while Memories of Matsuko centered on Matsuko as the victim par excellence, in Confessions, Nakashima dissects the nature of victimhood in such a way that either all are essentially victims or that the concept of victim is no longer relevant to describe this culture, young and old. The film’s opening sequence, which transforms into Yuko’s confession, is most emblematic of all of these concerns and the film overall. In a classroom full of noisy, ornery students, Yuko’s authority seems to have been thrown out of the window long ago. She addresses the class about quitting her job, but her voice hardly rises above the student’s cacophony. Unperturbed, she continues to speak in a calm and clear tone, and eventually recounts the tragedies that have beset her and her family: her AIDS-stricken husband, her daughter’s death. Little by little, her students lend their attention and lower their voices, and reach a point where they listen to Yuko. Eventually, Yuko provides details of her daughter’s death and the two boys who killed her, and of her personal revenge since they cannot be officially punished (being under the age of 14) according to Japanese law.

On paper, this scenario is perhaps trivial. But Nakashima fashions a visually, aurally, and narratively arresting sequence that would stand on its own as a short film. During the time Yuko narrates her story to her students, the image-track moves seamlessly through shots of Yuko, her daughter, the dog that she often fed, the students, the swimming pool in which her daughter’s body was found, the school grounds, and the sky, sometimes in slow-motion, while the soundtrack provides eerie, dramatic sounds plus music courtesy of Radiohead, among others. The resulting sequence is nothing short of breathtaking: for its assured narrative pacing that tames and sways the students’ noisy indifference and that transforms Yuko from a seemingly passive victim into an authoritative presence; its deft editing that constructs a mosaic of the social ills and euphorias of school; its complex soundscape of desks moving, human voices, nails scratching the blackboard, screams, projectiles hitting the body, and music. Though the film overall, as in this sequence, at times gets too caught up in itself when using slow-motion and popular songs as visual and aural motifs, which turns portions of the film into a music video, thankfully there are too few instances of it to spoil the viewing experience.

Confessions is not a perfect film, but the psychological extremes to which it goes to represent simultaneously a mother’s pain and the alienation generated by the social world of schooling is powerful and hypnotic. Crucial to the film’s hypnotic quality is the great, nuanced performances of the cast, led by Takako Matsu. Nakashima insisted on Matsu for the role of Yuko to upend her homely image (whose clearest expression is found in Villon’s Wife [2009, directed by Kichitaro Negishi]). Nakashima and Matsu succeed tremendously in creating an ominous yet affective portrait of Yuko; the fury that Matsu conjures through her eyes is simply superb. Yoshino Kimura as one of the boy-murderers’ mother is also great. While the students constitute more of a massive wave of collective energy than individual forces, Nakashima went out of his way to handpick each and every one of them.

78/100 - Nakashima and cast alike have constructed an absorbing world of revenge and intrigue that may be too excessive for some, but affective and significantly confrontational for others.

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