At the New Zealand International Film Festival, workaholic Takashi Miike gets reacquainted with his exploitation roots.
Violent, visceral, vengeful; harking back to his more notorious works of yesteryear, Takashi Miike’s Lesson of the Evil could be viewed as a return to ‘ultra-violent’ form in the vein of previous sadomasochistic cult films Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q (both 2001). Certainly Lesson of the Evil might register quite a shock to any fans who have followed on from the director’s last two jidaigeki (Japanese ‘period drama’) remakes 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri—which gained limited local theatrical release after New Zealand festival outings—but to those enamoured of his earlier more contentious genre pieces, Miike’s latest will likely be a shot of pleasurably disturbing cine-drenaline.
And yet structurally, Lesson of the Evil bears great similarity to its ostensible polar opposite, 13 Assassins. Each picture is characterised by an approximate 60:40 runtime split between plot development and an extended climactic action sequence. Both films also share an underlying spiritual dimension which adds a surreal fantastical element to otherwise concrete narrative lines. In 13 Assassins, this latter was signalled and personified (somewhat less obviously) in the Kiga Koyata hunter-fool character, whereas in Lesson of the Evil this aspect is brought to the fore via the explicit inclusion of ‘Odin’s ravens’ Huginn and Muninn as dual physical-spectral observers. Probably the greatest perceived difference between the two films lies is the way violence is contextualised in each. In 13 Assassins, the violent action is placed in the more acceptable framework of swordplay from a feudal past compared with Lesson of the Evil’s story setting being the topically troublesome context of a present day high school. Understandably, extreme violence in a high school setting is going to trigger warning bells in many quarters; it seems highly unlikely a film of this nature would have been funded Stateside.
Adapted from Yusuke Kishi’s 2010 novel of the same name, Miike’s film about a popular teacher’s slowly emerging dark intentions displays a grim humour and a certain concern for its characters even as it slowly puts paid to a significant portion of them. Visually, the palette morphs depending on current narrative subject; ironically beginning with many darker, if glossy, sections moving into more garish colour design as the narrative becomes more intense. One memorable internalised flashback in the climactic third brings to mind the kind of sickly, heightened colour saturation employed by Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) and a blood colour/quantity worthy of an Argento sequence. The action likewise escalates—in frequency if not in creative execution—whilst the director gives the middle finger to any viewer expectation of a similarly quickening pace, drawing out his grisly climax by way of steadily repeating atrocities, one-by-one, without montaging us through. The most constant thread in the film is the ‘Mack the Knife’ motif as illustrated by overt use of multiple language versions of the song throughout in relation to the chief character serving to create a chilling tone.
It is difficult to see that there is much else the director is trying to do with the film aside from provide a few shocks via a reasonably solid book adaptation. Any particular thematic depths Miike might be plumbing are unfortunately lost on me. His side roads into abstract spiritualism as criminal motivation may be interesting but are left relatively unexplored. The film also has a slightly unpolished feel—perhaps the result of the filmmaker’s perpetually bewildering workload—with story and character arcs feeling less than complete and some interactions a little clunky in their movement. Despite this minor tarnish, Lesson of the Evil is Miike in his element and the results are satisfyingly gory, distasteful, and fun, even if the takeaway is limited.