Lesson of the Evil (Aku no Kyoten): Film Review

Walking the razor’s edge between shocker and schlocker, Takashi Miike tries to have it both ways in an ultimately numbing high school tale of horror.

Yusuke Kishi’s best-selling horror thriller is brought to life by cult director Takashi Miike and young actor Hideaki Ito, as a teacher out of hell in an elite Japanese high school.

A Japanese thriller that turns into a psychotic bloodbath, Lesson of the Evil feels as off-kilter as its ungrammatical English language title. It represents yet another unclassifiable, sometimes daring and oft-times numbing outpouring from prolific bad boy director Takashi Miike, whose evident control of the film medium is matched by an exasperating adolescent urge to shock. Set once again in a rich kids’ prep school like his madcap For Love’s Sake (released earlier this year), this entry is played much straighter, even sedately for the first hour, before the director unleashes non-stop mayhem that should hook young fans thirsty for bloodshed in the classroom. For his international festival followers, it’s a plate that grows cold quickly, and the film looks like it will swiftly seek DVD trade.

After more than 80 films and videos, Miike remains an unpredictable filmmaker, though his penchant for extreme violence is increasingly channelled into cartoonish splashes of red ketchup. The startling thing about this film’s handsome opener is how understated the horror is. A teenager arms himself with a knife and slowly approaches his parents’ bedroom, where the distraught couple discuss turning him in to the police, having discovered he’s responsible for a series of murders. This interrupted scene is so effective it remains in the memory, and later will turn out to have great relevance to the rest of the story.

Almost all the action takes place in the halls, stairways and classrooms of an elite high school, where students wear coordinated uniforms and cheat at tests on their cell phones. Popular new English teacher Mr. Hasumi (Hideaki Ito), who looks like a clean-cut pop singer and is fond of ruffling students’ hair, earns the kids’ affection and his colleagues’ respect for his imaginative crisis-solving. Using muted, subdued colors and surprisingly classical filmmaking, Miike lulls viewers into a false sense of security, until good Mr. Chips unexpectedly responds to a pretty girl’s advances with most inappropriate passion.

That’s disorienting enough, but when Hasumi starts electrocuting talking ravens outside his ramshackle digs to the music of Mack the Knife, the mask falls off. After blackmailing two teachers who are having affairs with students, he turns to killing to cover his tracks. Each murder is imaginatively kinky, and happily takes place off-screen. However grisly the torture he devises, Hasumi always comes up wryly smiling as he sponges the blood off his face and arms. Unlike most serial killers, he’s pretty hard to dislike.       

Unhappily, this is also the point where the film’s wheels begin to spin and no logical ending appears in sight. But as Hasumi notes, why strain the brain when it’s up to the police (and the audience) to find a simple explanation? In the grand finale, which occupies most of the film’s last hour, all the stops are let out in typical Miike fashion and the slaughter of the innocents turns silly and repetitious.

Ito is maliciously cast against type as the psycho killer, but the flexible actor is very much up for the schizophrenic role and its turn-arounds. There isn’t much time for other characters to emerge, apart from a handful of sympathetically depicted teachers (one is gay, touchingly linked to an art student defiantly played by Kento Hayashi.) The kids are sketched quickly and incisively and including intense turns by Fumi Nikaido and Shota Sometani, co-winners of the emerging actors prize in Venice for Himizu.

All the tech work is first rate, even though one wishes a good part of the last hour could have stayed on the cutting room floor. Likewise, the Kurt Weill/Bertold Brecht classic Mack the Knife, sung by Ella Fitzgerald and other artists, is a good idea played to death.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (competition)
Production companies: Oriental Light and Magic, Toho Company
Cast: Hideaki Ito, Fumi Nikaido, Kento Hayashi, Shota Sometani, Kodai Asaka, Erina Mizuno, Takayuki Yamada
Director: Takashi Miike
Screenwriter: Takashi Miike based on a novel by Yusuke Kishi
Producers: Koji Azuma, Toru Mori, Misako Saka
Executive producers: Minami Ichikawa, Akihiro Yamauchi
Director of photography: Nobuyasu Kita
Production designers: Yuji Hayashida, Eri Sakushima
Music: Koji Endo
Costume designer: Yuya Maeda
Editor: Kenji Yamashita
Sales: Toho Company
No rating, 129 minutes