Review: LESSON OF THE EVIL Marks Miike's Welcome Return to Exploitation

James Marsh, Asian Editor

Miike Takashi's latest high school flick opens as a serious examination of fractured teacher-student relationships, before warping into a deranged and insanely violent black comedy when the charismatic English teacher reveals himself to be a gleefully prolific serial killer.

If nothing else, Japanese director Miike Takashi can always be relied upon to surprise his audience. With close to 90 titles already on his resume, the 52-year-old director is as hard-working as ever, releasing three films last year and with at least two more nearing completion. After making his name with extreme titles like Audition, Visitor Q and Ichi the Killer, Miike's filmography has become as diverse as it is busy. In recent years, he has delivered goofball children's comedies like Yatterman and Ninja Kids! as well as stately, austere epics like 13 Assassins and his remake of Kobayashi Masaki's classic Hara-Kiri. Miike's latest offering returns him to the corridors of high school, where he has previously found success with Crows: Zero and last year's musical For Love's Sake.

Lesson of the Evil introduces us to the handsome and exceedingly popular English teacher, Mr. Hasumi (Ito Hideaki), whose enthusiasm in the classroom engages even the most noncommittal of students, while his pastoral attentiveness sees girls and boys alike flocking to him for help and advice on everything from bullying to romance. Hasumi's charms even extend to the staffroom, where he is spearheading a new anti-cheating crackdown.

When a group of girls approach Hasumi with news that one of their classmates, Miya (Mizuno Erina), is being sexually assaulted by their gym teacher (Miike regular Yamada Takayuki), he gives smart advice that seemingly solves the situation. However, when he then sleeps with Miya himself, we begin to see the cracks behind his million dollar grin. Soon enough, an incensed parent, convinced his daughter is being bullied and unsatisfied with Hasumi's response, soon dies in a fire. We discover that while projecting an image of well-groomed success, Hasumi lives in a close-to-derelict outhouse on the outskirts of town and is increasingly obsessed by a pair of large crows outside his window. Soon he has aroused the suspicions of bookish Physics teacher, Tsurii (Fukikoshi Mitsuru), who begins to dig around in Hasumi's past - revealing frightening truths that soon enough erupt to the surface.

Miike is in no rush to reveal the extent of Hasumi's psychosis, and barring a few abstract flashbacks early on, it is not until the second half of the film that we really see who this guy is and exactly what he is capable of. That said, Miike's film does side with the theory that some people are just born evil, rather than turned into monsters by decades of abuse or neglect. However, the suspicion is that Miike is less interested in giving a lesson in human nature as much as he wants to return to his roots and let rip with a triumphantly bloody and humourous slice of exploitation.

On one level, the film plays like a wish-fulfillment fantasy from a frustrated educator. Having spent a few years teaching high school English myself, there were certainly days when the incessant sarcasm, laziness and nonchalance of a classroom full of teenagers came close to inspiring exasperated thoughts of violence towards minors. Even the enthusiastic kids can on some days be too much to bear. In Lesson of the Evil, once Hasumi tips over from calculated disposal of those in his way to indiscriminate genocide with a shotgun, empathy is no longer an option. The film becomes so jaw-droppingly absurd that you can only laugh as Hasumi tosses a petrified teen over the banister before ventilating her study mate.

Comparisons will doubtless be drawn between Fukasaku Kinji's Battle Royale for its extreme violence towards school children, and the vengeful teacher of Nakashima Tetsuya's Confessions, and while Lesson of the Evil should appeal to exactly the same crowd for exactly the same reasons, I don't think it is as accomplished as either of its predecessors.  The tone of the film veers wildly from straight up drama in the opening act, to the murky realms of a serial killer thriller, before it finally explodes into a pantomime of violence in its final stages. There are even moments of genuine fantasy - not least when Hasumi's shotgun mutates into a living thing, with eyeballs, a mouth and urges him on in his parade of killing. There is something wholly Cronenbergian - with a hint of A Nightmare on Elm Street - about the sequence, that not only betrays our protagonist as a full-blown looney tune, but illustrates to the audience that we should not be taking any of this very seriously.

While the cast includes a number of familiar young actors in the "hero" roles of Hasumi's students - in particular Sometani Shota and Nikaido Fumi from Himizu - as well as Yamada and Fukikoshi as his fellow teachers, Lesson of the Evil is Ito Hideaki's show all the way. He sells Hasumi so well as a charismatic dream teacher that even when you see him exploit his position, betray the trust of his pupils and embark on his bloody odyssey of inexplicable carnage, you don't hate him, but look on in baffled disbelief, much as those around him do. It is simply unbelievable.

Sadly, I can't imagine Lesson of the Evil getting much of a release in North America, what with the region's sensitivity towards gun violence and school shootings, but for those who enjoy their humour jet black and their violence extreme, this is definitely a film worth seeking out. It isn't perfect by any means. At 129 minutes, it is way too long, and a number of flashback sequences fall almost into self-parody due to some shamefully untalented foreign actors, but it has been some time since Miike got his hands this dirty, and Lesson of the Evil states in no uncertain terms that he's still got guts where its counts - namely, smeared all over the classroom walls.

Around the Internet:
  • muckerman

    What was this film trying to say about the USA? Saw it last night and I couldn't quite grasp what Miike was trying to say, but there was for sure some kind of message about the US he was trying to deliver. Anyone pick up on this?

  • Can't wait to watch this

  • Michaelb

    I can't wait to see this film.
    As much as I love seeing Miike do samurai films like 13 Assassins and kid movies like The Great Yokai War, his extreme films are what introduced me to Japanese cinema.
    To the poster who was griping about us fans being at the mercy of Western distributers, I hear ya!
    Check out my Japanese and foreign film blog at www.lostinthemiso.wordpress.co...

  • I miss the old Miike. I'll be seeing this.

  • hutch

    If you find a way to see with English subs, let me know. THe Japanese are stingy that way and we're usually left at the mercy of Western distributors that decide to change the length of the film and the look of the print. Do they still release international versions of Beatles albums?*sigh*

  • fergus1948

    Can anybody explain to me why so many Japanese movies these days (even some of the good ones) are too long by 20 to 30 minutes? There is always a period (roughly three quarters of the way through) where longeurs begin to appear and stifle the momentum. I have seen so many 2-hour J-movies that would have been so much better at 90 mins. (Obviously I exclude Sion Sono from this.)

  • CHUD

    That's actually a lot of movies from outside of the US, not just from Japan. The thing is, if that's what you're used to seeing, it works great for you, but if you're used to leaner, slicker flicks that sacrifice character development for that leanness, you probably won't like it. Spend a week watching nothing but Asian movies and then try watching a 90 minute Hollywood flick and it just won't feel right to you. You'll feel like you didn't really get to know the characters well enough to really give a shit what happened to them at the end.

  • fergus1948

    I watch lots of European and non-Hollywood movies, many of them of considerable length (eg Once Upon a Time in Anatolia , Love Exposure and classics by Mizoguchi etc etc.) Directors like that make long films but they don't contain one single unnecessary frame. I have no problem with duration PROVIDING it is justified in terms of character development, narrative and mood etc but my argument is that many of the current overlong J-movie movies contain padding that damages the overall movie.

    James Marsh said in the review of the above movie.. "At 129 minutes, it is way too long!" So clearly I am not alone.

  • hutch

    I agree with you totally. People say the same thing about Korean flicks. I'm down with their running time. I like a little more breathing time in the film. For reference, check the different versions of 'The Good, the Bad, & the Weird' and tell me the shorter version is better. Bleh.
    Anyway, the fact that Western critics usually are the ones saying 'too long' gives the hint that these films may not be too long, just culturally variant in what i s considered 'proper pace' of a film.

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