Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for JAPAN CUTS: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema which runs from July 11-21. For more information of this film series visit www.japansociety.org and follow Japan Society Film on Twitter at @js_film_nyc.
Lesson of the Evil is Miike Takashi’s return to the horror genre for which he first became internationally, notoriously, and reductively known with his 1999 film Audition. While vastly different in subject and setting, both films deal with killers. Both films are atmospheric, brooding, mysterious, and not to mention bloody. But they are so in different ways. If Audition’s atmospheric, brooding, and mysterious qualities qua horror reach us in a compelling, inward-looking way—in part because it wears the mark of independent filmmaking, making it one of the representative works of this period of Miike’s work—Lesson of the Evil’s atmospheric, brooding, and mysterious qualities qua horror come off as scary, yes, but also satirical and alarming in its social commentary. If Audition is narrow in its world by encompassing the lives of a man and a woman, Lesson of the Evil is expansive in its world by encompassing a whole high school population; the difference in each film’s target audience is thus evident. We can rue about Miike becoming a studio director all we want, but with Lesson of the Evil Miike delivers sustained anxiety and visceral derangement that conveys the horror and tragedy of a mass killing, even as it references and satirises filmic representations of such a thing.
Lesson of the Evil is Miike Takashi’s return to the horror genre for which he first became internationally, notoriously, and reductively known with his 1999 film Audition.
Consider Confessions (2010, Nakashima Tetsuya) as a comparative work in terms of setting (high school), protagonist-antagonist (teacher), and premise (vengeance and moral cleansing). It also comes to mind in terms of dramatic, operatic force, although Lesson of the Evil becomes pure horror in a way that Confessions never does. In this regard, another film reference to consider is Battle Royale (2000) in terms of an extreme society intent on getting rid of delinquent juveniles. What neither Confessions nor Battle Royale have is Ito Hideaki. Ito is the handsome popular film and television actor very much going against type to turn in a most wicked and delicious performance as unhinged being Hasumi Seiji, who goes from school to school to purge it of evil by killing students.
As the new English teacher at the Shinko Academy, Hasumi presents a positive and attractive face for the school. He is young, energetic, and a friend to students. The girls have crushes on him yet feel comfortable to talk to him as an adult figure, and the boys look up to him and respect him. He is an attentive teacher and school member, with the film proper beginning with him in the middle of a school meeting discussing the problem of cheating with cell phones among students. Hasumi’s physical and moral perfection is highlighted even more when compared to either his older, boring, not-with-it teaching colleagues or the one colleague close to his age who is raping one of his students.
Slowly, however, Hasumi’s veneer of perfection starts to crack, first when he begins an affair of his own with the student who was being raped by his colleague, and then blackmails a fellow teacher for taking one of his male students as his lover. In short, Hasumi finds the weaknesses and secrets of those around him to manipulate them to his advantage. If he cannot manipulate them somehow, he simply gets rid of them and buries them somewhere in the woods near where his decrepit house lies surrounded by overgrown, unkempt grass. The first to spot cracks in his veneer is his bespectacled colleague Tsurii (Fukikoshi Mitsuru), an eccentric man who relies on his gut, olfactory feelings about people’s natures. As he sees the cracks in Hasumi’s character, he is not afraid to share his findings with others, be it the police or the students and unwittingly helps Hasumi target those who may get in his way. The shattering of Hasumi’s veneer becomes a tragic point of no return for the students, as the film culminates in an extensive school shooting with Hasumi equipped with a shotgun.
What makes the film even more disturbing, but negatively and naively so, is the connection that it makes between school violence, serial killers, and the American psyche in scenes meant to flesh out Hasumi’s backstory.
Admittedly, Lesson of the Evil is nothing new, in part because it does satirise serial killer horror moments. But it does showcase two distinct things, which makes it an adrenaline-gushing, distressing film experience: Miike’s strong sense of constructing fear and suspense and Ito reveling in his evil role, made all the more surprising and effective because of his good looks. Miike, too, revels in continually pushing the violence button as the film progresses, to conclude with the typical horror situation of a predator knocking out his prey one by one, blood steeped in more blood, at the school. But what one would think merely becomes cartoonish actually makes the blood curdle, in part because the school shooting is relentless and feels never-ending.
What makes the film even more disturbing, but negatively and naively so, is the connection that it makes between school violence, serial killers, and the American psyche in scenes meant to flesh out Hasumi’s backstory. Part of his backstory involves the murder of his parents in the prologue, but also his student days at Harvard, where he meets a fellow student who is a serial killer. Satirical or not, especially since it is performed with terrible Caucasian so-called ‘actors’ and the image/voice of Hasumi’s Harvard schoolmate prods him to kill, in the end it leaves just a bad taste in the mouth.
[notification type=”star”]76/100 ~ GOOD. Lesson of the Evil is atmospheric, brooding, and mysterious qualities qua horror come off as scary, yes, but also satirical and alarming in its social commentary.[/notification]