We now reach that moment that happens at every MIFF where we get the chance to view the latest film from prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike. Miike’s films have been a regular inclusion at MIFF for as long as I can remember with many times the director having two films screening at the festival. While it was a bit of a surprise that “Shield Of Straw” did not make it into this year’s MIFF (I am guessing it will now be on next year’s roster), Miike’s previous film “Lesson Of The Evil” was always a sure thing.
At a local Japanese high school, a meeting is taking place amongst all of the teachers of the faculty in an attempt to curb cheating during the exam period. The problem they are having is the use of mobile phones during exams and they are trying to come up with a successful and legal way to stop the cheating. The person who seems to be most in charge and concerned about the student’s wellbeing is Mr. Hasumi. Hasumi is relatively new to the school but is everything you look for in a teacher. He is kind and considerate, unassuming and thoughtful, and he is very good at his job. He is a favourite amongst the staff and particularly the students, who seem to trust him more than they do the other teachers of the school, mainly due to the fact that he doesn’t talk down to them and treats them like friends rather than students. To say that he has a great rapport with the students is an understatement. However all is not right with Mr. Hasumi because behind his visage of kindness and normality, the man hides a horrible and shocking secret – Hasumi is secretly a homicidal maniac and anyone who upsets him or gets in his way has a habit of living a much shorter life than expected. Until now though, Hasumi has been able to keep his secret just that, but after another teacher starts snooping into some of the strange occurrences that happened at the previous school Hasumi taught at, it forces Hasumi to bring his alter ego out from the shadows in an attempt to silence his critics forever.
The way that “Lesson Of The Evil” was marketed, I thought I was going to be seeing a different film than I ended up seeing. I assumed that the film was going to be about a good teacher who, due to the political correctness of the times, finds it hard to do his job properly. He continues to get more and more frustrated when bullying becomes a part of his school and after not being able to properly punish these kids who are destroying the thrill of learning for everyone else, he eventually snaps and decides to dish out a brand of punishment that these kids understand and that is a violent one. It turned out that “Lesson Of The Evil” was nothing like that because Mr. Hasumi turned out to just to be your regular homicidal maniac who gets a thrill out of killing people. The film I thought I was seeing was full of subtext and social commentary and looked at how hard it is to teach in today’s world and I thought it was going to be something really interesting, when in reality “Lesson Of The Evil” has no depth to it at all. What you see is what you get, and it turns out to be a very shallow exercise in bloody violence. That said, what is on screen is actually quite entertaining, it is just a shame that it means nothing.
Something that I really did not like about the film is that it really put teachers and schools in such a bad light. From this film, you would assume that all any teacher wants to do is to bed any of their students they can, and that none of them have the ability to say “no” if a student has a crush on them. So many of the teachers in this film are having sexual affairs with their students, that it is not funny. While I have no doubt that this does happen from time to time in the real world, this film makes it come across as commonplace, to the point that these scenes are presented so nonchalantly as if they are the norm.
The film really has two halves with the first half surprisingly being the more interesting which is where we see Hasumi at his best; where he is the brilliant teacher that everyone looks up to and loves. During the meeting it is his suggestion in a bid to stop the cheating that the school uses signal jammers as well as searching students when entering the room for mobile phones. When he is shot down over his suggestion because these things are illegal and would take away from the student’s rights, he doesn’t become undeterred by it, instead he sets up listening devices in a number of the rooms (and the signal jammers) in secret where he starts to learn of the worst aspects of the school like the bullying and the affairs between a number of teachers with their students. At this point in the film we assume that Mr. Hasumi is going to turn these people in, because all we have seen from this man is kindness and a focus on the student’s wellbeing and studies, and that he will clean up the school for good but it is actually quite shocking to see this man do the opposite. Mr. Hasumi uses this information as blackmail material and eventually as grounds to kill when he wants to. The second half of the film is when Mr. Hasumi totally loses control and commits one of the most brutal massacres ever seen before in a film. While this part of the film is shocking in its content, watching school kids being constantly eviscerated by a shotgun can become hard to take after a while, it lacks the complexities of the opening half and the film ends up becoming much less interesting.
The performance from Hideaki Ito as Hasumi actually mirrors the film’s two halves because I thought that he was fantastic in the opening half playing this thoughtful and caring teacher, where his performance became a total over the top cliché when Hasumi becomes the psycho he does. He becomes so broad as a performer which is a shame because he gives Hasumi incredible depth early on in the film where he is so charismatic too. One part of the second half that I did love was when he was totally gone, from a mental point of view, and he was talking to his gun, which in his eyes was fused to his hand, in some sick Cronenberg-like way. In fact this was the only part of the second half that didn’t come across as generic. There are so many small and bit characters in the film, that it is only Ito’s performance that commands attention although I will say that I loved to seeing Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido on screen together even though it was only brief (they were the stars of Sion Sono’s “Himizu”) and I also thought that Mitsuru Fukikoshi (also from “Himizu”) was hilarious as the teacher who starts the investigation into Hasumi.
“Lesson Of The Evil” is always going to be remembered for the school-set massacre that happens at the end of the film and for good reason because it is extremely bloody with Takashi Miike leaving nothing to the imagination. Time after time we are witness to kids being shot at close range and watching their soon-to-be lifeless bodies recoil in agony. To give you an idea just how much blood is shed in this finale, Hasumi actually wears a plastic raincoat the whole time that is covered in the blood from his dirty work. However the massacre goes on for far too long that eventually the audience becomes desensitized to the violence on screen (which should never be possible when it comes to kids being gunned down in cold blood) to the point that it becomes so repetitive that we ultimately become bored. In fact, the length of Takashi Miike’s films of late has become something of a problem as the majority of them are all over two hours, which for the most part is far too long. “Lesson Of The Evil” falls into this category, and if Miike was able to trim back about twenty minutes from the film, I am sure it would’ve been beneficial to it.
Overall, “Lesson Of The Evil” is a typical Miike film in the fact that it is extremely well made, but the film itself is less than the sum of its parts. It is a film of two halves with the first half being much more interesting than the second bloodier half. Sensitive viewers need to be wary of “Lesson Of The Evil” because the scenes of the children being unceremoniously massacred are incredibly bloody and confronting and I am sure that there are many people who would find them very hard to watch. At the end of the day though, Miike’s “Lesson Of The Evil” is a competent film, an entertaining film but ultimately it is a hollow film which is a little damning. It also appears that the film will have a sequel sometime because the film ends with the words “to be continued…….”.