There are few directors that frustrate me as much as Takashi Miike. He’s a man that has demonstrated a certain stylish panache throughout his career but has never been able show any form of consistency. In fact, his repertoire seems to have a lot more misses than hits, and to be honest, aside from a few notable exceptions, I don’t think his ‘hits’ are that great anyway. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most popular Japanese filmmakers and his name continues to attract large audiences not just from his native country, but from around the world. The last of his I had the misfortune of seeing was the toe-curling high school romcom musical, For Love’s Sake. His latest, also set within the confines of a school, is a much bloodier affair, but thankfully it’s not anywhere near as nauseating.
Lesson of Evil stars Hideaki Ito as Mr. Hasumi, a cool, popular English teacher at a well-established Japanese high school. He’s handsome, smartly dressed, has perfect hair and all the pupils love him, but behind that deceitful smile lies something hideously sinister. He killed his parents when he was only a teen, the students at his previous school simultaneously committed ‘suicide’ and he’s sleeping with one of the girls in his class. So, he’s obviously not the Mary Poppins of school teachers. Not everyone is fooled by his natural charisma however. Tsurii, one of the physics professors, sees through his charming demeanour fairly early on and when strange rumours begin to spread through the school, some of the students grow suspicions of their own. This doesn’t really extend to anything more than schoolyard chitter-chatter though and Hasumi safely manages to carry on with his dubious activities with little resistance. Up until this point, apart from the highly inappropriate relationship with the young schoolgirl and the odd horrific murder, things have actually been pretty innocent, but as the story begins to unravel the full horror of Hasumi’s psychotic behaviour reveals itself and it’s safe to say that not everyone is getting out alive.
In many ways, Lesson of Evil can be seen as your typical Miike film – with typical Miike problems. The acting’s over-the-top, the plot is near nonsensical and of course it’s far too long, but for all its flaws, there is something undeniably fun about watching an absolute bloodbath unfold on screen. That is after all what Miike does best. Blood, gore and outrageous violence is how many of us came to know the director, so to see him return to those roots is almost weirdly nostalgic. Admittedly, the endless string of killings in the last act can be a bit repetitive and it undoubtedly drags on, but I certainly found it much more entertaining than the first two thirds which were laborious and uninteresting to say the least. The needless flashbacks, the irritating school gossip and the random vague references to Norse mythology were tiresome and instead of creating suspense it rather deflated it. The constant hopping back and forth between characters and the absence of a central protagonist also proved problematic, as the film fails to establish any of the school kids. They’re all basically treated like fodder, and it’s difficult to care about them individually when their sole purpose is to be knocked off by the shotgun-wielding psychopath.
It’s worth noting that how the last third plays out can be seen to be grotesquely in bad taste, especially considering the age of the victims, where it takes place and the sensitive topic of school shootings. Personally, I wasn’t troubled by this, as I found the violence far too cartoonish to take seriously enough to have those considerations, but it’s certainly understandable if someone were to take issue with it. In a strange way, it would’ve actually been to its merit if it did provoke such a reaction from me as that would’ve meant that the picture not only worked as a mediocre thrill ride, but also on a visceral emotional level. It’s also worth mentioning Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which shares several thematic similarities with this film. It’s almost funny how Van Sant could approach the subject of school shootings with sensitivity and a profundity that Miike doesn’t even attempt, whilst being just as violent and bloody. Obviously, the two are very different movies and they are two very different filmmakers, but the fact that Elephant exists demonstrates how immature and ridiculous Lesson of Evil is. On one hand we have intelligent thought-provoking cinema with pathos, on the other we have brainless slasher flick with as much pathos as a breadstick.
Takashi Miike is heralded as this super, hard-working director with a project always on the go, and with close to a hundred titles to his name it’s difficult to argue against it. But sometimes I can’t help but think his incredible productivity has less to do with his efficiency and more to do with a lack of care and attention to detail. If he were to concentrate his efforts on one or two projects per year, I’m almost certain he would produce better results, but I suppose he’ll never change. In the spectrum of Miike works this is probably one of his better ones of recent times, but the lack of social bite or satire is a sadly missed opportunity. Lesson of Evil is simply a silly thriller with whole load of bloodshed and nothing else, and ultimately that’s probably all that his fans want.
Words by Anthony Hon