Dir/scr: Takashi Miike. Japan. 2012. 128mins
A handsome, popular high-school teacher is not all he seems in Takashi Miike’s long-awaited return to the psycho-horror genre of the early films (like Audition or Ichi The Killer) that turned him into an international cult auteur. An adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s bestselling novel Aku no Kyoten, Lesson Of The Evil will be remembered largely for its admittedly compelling ‘fish-in-a-barrel’ school massacre sequence, which gives both the audience and the sleepwalking director an invigorating slap in the face. But as a horror film, the prolific Japanese director’s third film so far this year is undone by a fatal lack of suspense and the sheer haste with which script and package were clearly assembled.
Miike has a talent for choral melodrama which comes out (thanks also to some strong performances) in the first half of the film as Harumi’s class of teen students on the verge of adulthood bond, mope and tentatively flirt with each other.
Lesson Of The Evil premiered at the Rome film festival on the eve of its November 10 domestic release in Japan, where Miike-fatigue will be offset by the director’s return to safe genre ground and the pull of a rising-star cast that seems designed to rope in a younger crowd than the 52-year-old enfant terrible’s recent films have tended to attract.
And although the transformation of Nippon film and TV heartthrob Hideaki Ito (Princess Blade, Sukiyaki Western Django) into a psychopathic killer is not entirely convincing, it will be sure to generate a certain media buzz. Elsewhere, the film has some genre traction. But it would need a finer script than it’s been given to go theatrical; think fanboy, VOD and DVD.
Set in a Japanese city high school, the film presents dishy prof Seiji Harumi (Ito) as Mr Popular: young, keen, a hit with both students and staff and good at solving problems like an outbreak of mobile-phone cheating, he seems to have everything going for him. But the early revelation that Harumi lives in a shack in the woods with two crows for company (like Norse God Odin, we are told in voice-over), alerts us to the fact that all is not right in this model teacher’s head.
Miike has a talent for choral melodrama which comes out (thanks also to some strong performances) in the first half of the film as Harumi’s class of teen students on the verge of adulthood bond, mope and tentatively flirt with each other. The film’s real problem is that once nice Mr Harumi is revealed to be a psychopath, character development goes out of the window (together with not a few of nice Mr Harumi’s pupils).
Unable to feel remorse, empathy, or much else, Harumi becomes a calculating killing machine and the only questions are who, when, where and how – though it must be said that there’s a certain pleasure in the way Miike answers this last question. There’s less joy in the director’s attempts to address the ‘why’ part of the equation: some thankfully brief backstory insets showing Harumi’s brilliant murderous career are hammishly bad.
The soundtrack is dominated by variant renditions of Kurt Weil’s Moritat von Mickie Messer, better known as Mack the Knife. Miike is a visual stylist even when on a tight schedule; here he makes inventive play with the tan jackets and tartan trousers of the students’ uniform, which stand out starkly against wintry white or grey backgrounds.
But it’s a mark of the film’s shoddy assemblage that in the shooting and editing of the final sequence, the director seems to forget his own tagline – “Our teacher killed everyone one by one, like taking a roll call”. Only once is this neat idea specifically referenced as the bodies pile up – and it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.
Production companies: Toho Co Eiga Ltd, OLM Inc
International sales: Toho Co Ltd, www.toho.co.jp
Producer: Hisashi Usui
Executive producers: Minami Ichikawa, Akihiro Yamauchi
Cinematography: Nobuyasu Kita
Editor: Kenji Yamashita
Production designer: Yushi Hayashida, Eri Sakushima
Music: Koji Endo
Main cast: Hideaki Ito, Fumi Nikaido, Shota Sometani, Kento Hayashi, Kodai Asaka, Erina Mizuno, Takayuki Yamada