Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne, und die trägt er im Gesicht. Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer, doch das Messer sieht man nicht.
And the shark, it has teeth, and it wears them in the face. And Macheath, he has a knife, but the knife can’t be seen.)
You wouldn’t have thought that Bertolt Brecht and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe would be relevant in a modern Japanese school serial killer drama that is drenched with gore, but Lesson of Evil is chock full of surprisingly intellectual references. It’s a controversial adaptation of shock, gore and awe but with careful pop-art precision in instigation. Lessons to be learned by all then, good or evil.
Shinko Academy is a high school where mobile phones are being used by some unscrupulous pupils as a way of cheating at exams. The teachers are concerned about this and consider various ways of stopping the practice, perhaps by banning phones inside the classrooms or even, somewhat unethically, by jamming all mobile phone signals during exam time. New to the school this year is English teacher Seiji Hasumi (Hideaki Itô) who seems to be very popular with the pupils, especially the girls, including Miya Yasuhara (Erina Mizuno). Miya has a multitude of problems that she feels able to confide in Hasumi about, particularly the sexual-blackmailing she is enduring from another teacher in connection with a shoplifting escapade. Hasumi seems to be an ideal teacher – enthusiastic, inspirational and caring, but the older, unpopular physics teacher is determined to discover this newcomer’s past. Similarly, students Reika and Take are also slightly wary of their home room teacher. As term progresses, students and staff begin to go missing in a variety of suspicious circumstances. Matters escalate to horrifying levels when the students start preparing for the school festival. With a ghost house under construction, it seems that everyone is going to be together in the same building and it’s going to be a very long night.
Based upon the novel by Yusuke Kishi, the screenplay for Lesson of Evil was written by Takashi Miike and this is a film where the narrative, pre-titular sequence and foreshadowing do much to emphasise a serial killer theme, but they also place the film in a wider context, both socially in Japan and across cultural boundaries from America (the gestation of instigation) to Germany (the philosophy behind the outcome). Modern concerns about mobile phones and social networks are intrinsic to aspects of the story and so are the typical themes of teen angst that pervade the high school drama – issues such as teasing, fighting and bullying are raised. Additional controversies in the form of teenage suicide, sex between teachers and pupils, both straight and gay, guns, girls, groups and gropes, how does this link with either shock horror gorefest or art cinema social commentary?
The answer? Both.
There are nods to northern European mythology – Odin and crows – throughout the narrative, combined with references derived from aspects of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werther) in internet forums as well as the pervasive song Mack the Knife from Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, played throughout the running time in many languages. But the philosophical elements take a back seat when the film’s long climax begins. While the build up is tense and signals possibilities of violence and deprivation right from the start, the conclusion is a never-ending journey of brutally instigated extreme violence. Sometimes it’s deliberately over-the-top, sometimes melodramatic and occasionally the shocks are remarkably underplayed. There’s also plenty of gallows humour in a death spree that results in an education of pure evil, amidst a carnage irrevocable.
Extras on this DVD/Blu-ray release include a fascinating and in-depth ‘making of’ documentary, a project that covers the shooting of the film from day one with its uncooperative crows and it also helpfully indicates how many deaths were filmed on each day. At two hours long it is just short of the film’s own running time. Not for the faint hearted, Lessons of Evil was passed uncut. Bloody good, imaginatively filmed serial killer film, as would be expected from Miike.