Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Takashi Miike, Yusuke Kishi
Producer: Koji Azuma, Toru Mori, Misako Saka
Stars: Hideaki Ito, Fumi Nikaido, Shota Sometani, Kento Hayashi, Kodai Asaka, Erina Mizuno
As a rash of strange suicides sweeps through a Japanese high school, students and faculty discover that a popular teacher may be more than he seems.
Recognizing Takashi Miike as a Master of Horror because of how effectively he creates thrilling visual shocks is easy. Receiving less acclaim during any discussion of what makes Miike a noteworthy auteur is his firmly competent handle on how to keep slow-paced exposition compelling in spite of a subdued tempo.
Other reviews and commentaries have criticized “Lesson of the Evil” for stewing overlong in a slow first hour. Yet much like he did with the opening of “Audition,” what Miike is actually doing is expertly luring viewers into a sense of identification to a real world setting before flipping it upside down with a single finger snap. When Miike finally agrees it is time to bathe in his signature style of hyper-violence, initial jolts come from having been hypnotized throughout an hour of deliberately timed backstory development.
Initial impressions paint Shinko Academy as little different than any typical overdramatized high school on the CW or Teen Nick. Students have crushes on teachers. Teachers have inappropriate relationships with students. Overly concerned parents, cheating on tests, faculty rivalries, and disciplinary issues facing pupils and instructors alike lay a foundation fraught with enough side story potential to script an entire week’s worth of Lifetime movies.
Mr. Hasumi is mostly respected by his peers, popular with his students, and by extension, well liked by the audience. Actor Hideaki Ito gives the character a charming charisma tinted with just enough of a shadow to plant a seed of uneasy suspicion regarding his true intentions. He playfully looks the other way after spotting one teen reading manga in class, helps another foil the extortion attempts of a perverted teacher, and otherwise appears to be an all around sympathetic hero. Until he unexpectedly starts making out with an underage girl.
That is only the first instance of what becomes increasingly sinister behavior, though. By the time Hasumi is through, his likable ways turn to devious ones as he becomes involved in torture, staging suicides, and pulling the trigger on a whole slew of gruesome murders.
“Lesson of the Evil” screened at the 2014 Stanley Film Festival in Estes Park, Colorado, which may have been a questionable programming choice given the location’s proximity both to Littleton, where the Columbine High School shooting took place in 1999, and to Aurora, where 12 people were killed in a 2012 movie theater shooting. I might not have made the connection until I overheard one Colorado native grimace to his friends that he felt the movie was distasteful for “obvious reasons,” which I can only speculate was referring to a personal relationship with one of those two tragedies.
Takashi Miike’s films are usually an acquired taste, and “Lesson of the Evil” definitely fits that bill. Although it does not take a personal connection to make the reality of the depicted fantasy hit home in an unfortunate way that Miike probably did not intend, it is worth a forewarning to those who are sensitive about content involving school shootings. Usually, the graphic depiction of violence is what disturbs unsuspecting audiences the most about Miike’s work. Here, the specific subject matter is potentially just as controversial.
Without becoming insensitively playful, Miike still tries giving his shotgun-blasting finale a surreal tone that lessens the razor sharpness of its brutality. Some have arguably mistakenly categorized “Lesson of the Evil” with labels of black comedy or subversive satire. While there are tinges of comedy in how some individual moments are presented, a slow-motion sequence of buckshot thwarting an arrow’s aim comes to mind, Miike is not really suggesting that there is anything inherently funny about the actions occurring onscreen.
But what he is doing is painting the picture with an almost comic book-like presentation while keeping the overall impact intact. Excessively colorful lights drench every frame of the bloodbath. The entire setting is played against the backdrop of a school decorated for a festival featuring a house of horrors and a strange moon landing diorama. When Hasumi’s gun turns into the sinew of a ghost haunting his damaged brain, complete with one eye winking from the gunstock, Miike is proving himself to be a confident filmmaker unafraid to risk betraying his film’s tone with a daring decision for a different direction.
Contrary to those who feel the first half of the movie is too long, that is how the second half comes across. The climactic massacre goes on for nearly 50 minutes. The gunfire blasts, blood spray bursts, and gory demises become so excessive that desensitization is the only possible response after a period of time. With a total runtime of 128 minutes, Miike does belabor “Lesson of the Evil” past a point where its themes can still resonate by overindulging in a carnage confetti shower.
However, I would rather have a drawn out movie that is at least aesthetically interesting no matter where its content meanders or for how long. The overall value of “Lesson of the Evil” as a meaningful film is debatable, although it is assuredly a demented portrait of a sociopathic psycho like only a twisted visionary can create. Regardless of its contextual worth, the compelling characterizations, stunning cinematography, and a stylish structure to even the most mundane moments make “Lesson of the Evil” always engaging to watch.
NOTE: The film’s Japanese title is “Aku no kyoten.”
Review Score: 75