I must admit that my track record when it comes to Takashi Miike is rather mixed, having seen a number of the more well-known of his films and finding them to be rather hit and miss. For every Audition, Happiness of the Katakuris or 13 Assassins, there’s an effort that either doesn’t quite gel, or is I suspect intended for a different audience. There’s no denying though that he’s a daring director as well as a divisive one, and he never shies away from surprising and shocking his viewers.
Lesson of Evil, based on Yusuke Kishi's 2010 novel, is a return to the unashamedly over-the-top gory horror that long-standing fans of Miike have come to expect, so in that sense it’s very welcome indeed. The trademarks of larger-than-life characters, pitch-black humour, brutal comic book-style violence and literal bucketfuls of fake blood are all present and correct, as is the now-familiar spiral into violent mayhem during the film’s final act.
Seiji Hasumi, played with chilling gusto by Hideaki Ito, is the epitome of the charming high school teacher: young, good-looking and fluent in English, he has the respect of his colleagues and the admiration of his otherwise-unruly pupils. Whether they’re classroom exam cheats, militant parents or other teachers who abuse their positions for their personal gratification, Hasumi is always willing to step in and do the right thing. As certain individuals begin to question his credentials and dig into his past however, the mask starts to slip and the Hasumi’s true nature is revealed. That is, only after students, parents and teachers start to die or disappear in mysterious circumstances...
Although it lacks the polish and elegance of Tetsuya Nakashima’s schoolroom psycho-thriller Confessions – a film that shares a number of thematic similarities – Lesson of Evil builds up an impressive amount of tension and unease as we become acquainted with the outwardly charismatic Hasumi and the people around him. During the first hour or so the deliberate pacing is very effective in setting the scene and gives the viewer a gradually-realised impression that This Will Not End Well.
The supporting cast, especially Hasumi’s students, are excellent throughout: Fumi Nikaido and Shota Sometani (who some of us will recognise from Sion Sono’s Himizu) lead the bright young acting talent working alongside some familiar Miike collaborators such as Takehiro Hira and Takayuki Yamada. The only let-down in that regard comes during some of the flashback scenes, during which the performances of certain native English-speaking characters are so bad I wasn’t sure whether it was for comedic effect or not.
The issue of comedy is an important one in this film because, after the intriguing classroom drama and the darkly disturbing revelations concerning Hasumi’s past, the shocking denouement is full of dark, gleeful humour that’s closer in tone to Quentin Tarantino than Miike’s domestic contemporaries such as the aforementioned Sono or Nakashima. One or two fantastical visual flourishes are added to an unflinching torrent of brutality, set to absurd background music (you’ll never hear the jazz classic Mack the Knife in the same light again) and propelled by Ito’s spine-chilling portrayal of the sociopathic homeroom teacher.
While the pacing works well in the first half of the film, the finale feels rather more dragged out, and after a while it really starts to lose its impact. The squeamish and easily-offended would have reached for the remote by this point anyway, but this shock value is what a scene such as that relies on to keep its momentum.
The likes of the modern classic Battle Royale succeed in their portrayal of high school slaughter through social commentary and/or the grimly fascinating examination into how terrified young minds react to extreme situations; Lesson of Evil is more straightforward, offering no underlying reason for the massacre but instead trying to sustain itself on the premise of adrenalin-fuelled guilty pleasure. The shortcoming in that approach is that it doesn’t lend itself well to repetition: by the time it reached its conclusion I had long since passed through feeling shocked and appalled by the carnage on-screen, and was simply bored.
I think that if you’re looking for an examination into school-related social problems or a deeper meaning to the other topical issues the film addresses, this isn’t a title that will leave you satisfied. The startling exploitative violence is its raison d’être and in this aspect it delivers, to the point of excess by the end. The build-up is certainly effective though, and if the editing trimmed down the physical duration of the violence to lend it more punch, plus making the character background sections a little clearer, I would undoubtedly have found it more enjoyable.
As it is, the standout performances – especially from Ito and his unfortunate charges – and the sheer audacity on the part of the director to crank the gore factor to eleven are the main event here, and in that department I’m sure this will find an appreciative audience. Nevertheless, the themes and ideas have been covered with more class and flair elsewhere, but Miike fans can at least take comfort in the fact that this cult figure has returned to over-the-top slasher with all his trademark enthusiasm.