Japanese master of splat Takashi Miike has flirted with the dark and downright seedy since his debut in 1991. From there the infamous horror director has carved an impressive career for over twenty years that has garnered him one of the most enthusiastic trans-national fanbases in modern cinema, arguably thanks to his relatively low-key high-production rate and avid cult status. 2010’s 13 Assassins flagged up Miike’s impressive mastery over yet another genre, the samurai movie, and brought him another round of critical and audience acclaim, but with 2012’s Lesson of Evil, Miike returns to more familiar territory.
Like many of Miike’s films, Lesson of Evil has an irrepressible need to demolish standard assumptions around everyday relationships and institutions in the most heinous way possible. Based on Yusuke Kishi’s novel Aku no Kyoten, Lesson of Evil is an acidic commentary on high-school life and the dark potential of student-teacher relationships. From the start Miike paints the school environment as one ultimately cold and indifferent to the sufferings of its charges: sexual abuse, paranoid parenting, indifferent teachers, and bullies run rampant in a kind of hive of corruption glazed over by mid-teen dreams. Miike is careful to let us know what we’re in for from the opening scene, where the charming and respected Mr Hasumi suggests the school broadcast a phone jamming signal to stop cheating in exams. It’s a small but important moment that becomes hopelessly important later on. Like Miike, Hasumi keeps his cards close to the chest ensuring that the audience is always one step behind. Hasumi’s vague social interactions, his often strange behaviours are lent credit and context as the film progresses, each decision paying off in some awful way.
Hideaki Ito deserves great credit for his unsettling performance as Hasumi, one second warm and caring, the next detached and eye-wateringly cruel. Hasumi’s constant nakedness around his squalid living environment marks an effective conflict of images, reminiscent of Patrick Bateman racing perfectly-bodied around the corpse strewn New York apartment he takes as residence. For every perfectly executed lie there is a disturbing truth lurking very near the surface. For every question there comes a worrying reply. Hasumi is the perfect villain for the 21st century, an outright sadist and manipulator who hides under the handsome guise of a trusted teacher.
Some of the most intriguing scenes are the more off-kilter ones that reveal Miike’s deep-seeded affection for the more unconventional aspects of the story. Hasumi’s fascination with Norse mythology, his persecution of crows, the Cronenbergian quality of his shotgun, and the impressive dream-sequences are at once jarring and welcome, but arguably the weakest parts of the film. Certainly Hasumi’s past is wedged in, squashed into a few dreams and flashbacks, caricatured by a fleshy talking shotgun. It’s oddly pleasing, but uncomfortable within the confines of the stark realism put in place. Similarly, there are so many students that an attempt to make us care for some more than others doesn’t quite pull off.
Miike fans may well be disappointed by the first two thirds of this slow burning school shocker, but the final act is a crescendo of chaos where all the baby steps and manipulations come to fruition and Hasumi delivers his ultimate lesson of evil. It’s here Miike reminds the audience why he has the reputation he does, charging scenes of disgraceful violence with such energy and, dare I say, humour that the whole thing is frankly upsetting. Rarely does gun violence look as good as it does here, each shot (and there are many of them) rings out loud and foul, tearing through scenery and flesh alike. The continuity of the violence, the shots and their after-effects is impressive too, ensuring that the cat and mouse hunting which accounts for a solid 45 minutes of the film takes place in an environment the audience feels uncomfortably familiar with.
An enthralling return to Miike’s shocking roots, Lesson of Evil is a malicious and often gleeful tale of senseless violence. It takes a while to show its true colours but by the end the film has well and truly impressed.
Dir. Takeshi Miike
Stars. Hideaki Ito, Shota Somtani, Fumo Nikaido, Takayuki Yamada