Starring: Hideaki Ito, Fumi Nikaido
Director: Takashi Miike
There’s a school of thought that says you have to be bonkers to become a teacher, but hopefully not as bonkers as Hasumi (Hideaki Ito), the twisted protagonist of Lesson of Evil. At work, he’s smooth and popular, but he lives in a semi-derelict house where, instead of getting on with his marking and a bit of lesson preparation, he wiles away the hours electrocuting crows. You sense that it’s only a matter of time before he extends his murderous urges to his pupils.
The first half of the film plays like one of Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptations. You get the same wet, brownish palette, the same overcast skies, the same stately pace and leisurely introduction to a mildly dysfunctional community – in this case Hasumi’s high school, a place which seems proper enough outwardly but is actually a nest of intrigue. Taking its time, the camera casts its eye over a large cast of characters, all with something going on, and we get glimpses into the strange lives of the pupils and the even stranger lives of the teachers.
The common thread running through these scenes is the eeriness (when you stop to think about of it) of institutions where people rub along together while really knowing very much about each other… and that means most institutions. Darabontish or not, it’s all very well handled by the prolific and versatile Takashi Miike (Crows Zero), and it shows how effective he can be when he eschews his usual showy tricks for a more slow-burning technique. But the film will undoubtedly be most talked about for its controversial second half, which is an extended gorefest as Hasumi finally flips on the eve of a school festival and chases the kids with a shotgun through tissue paper grottoes, shooting them like fish in a barrel, ribbons, balloons and coloured lights mocking the slaughter.
These two halves – the Frank Darabont-ish and the 13 Assassins-ish – aren’t easy to reconcile until you realize that Lesson of Evil isn’t actually a thriller at all but a disaster movie: Hasumi is like a typhoon that hits the school, and the children are helpless before it, as Miike tirelessly demonstrates by showing pupil after pupil blown backwards off their feet in a spurt of grue. Yet as in a disaster movie, there’s a touch of hokum to even the grisliest of proceedings, softening the impact of all that graphic violence. Having a teacher as the killer makes a symbolic point about the extent to which we take the educational profession’s goodwill for granted, but it’s less scarily real than if it were another kid doing it. You therefore watch the mayhem without any real emotional wrench, not unless you’re absolutely determined to get worked up over the film daring to take a school massacre as its theme. Which will be fine for those viewers who want to enjoy a bit of expertly choreographed carnage without having their deeper feelings unduly troubled. Lesson of Evil is a strange beast in many ways, as schizoid as its villain, but both halves show Miike at somewhere near his best.
The Blu-ray comes with a two hour long “making of” that is an absolute treasure trove for Miike enthusiasts. An intensive behind the scenes record of the 47-day shoot, it’s the next best thing to actually being on set with him. We get to see the director trying to get a decent performance out of some crows with the aid of a cawing bird wrangler, and shooting a murder on a real train packed with Miike product placements. An interesting sequence of his crew dollying the camera across a classroom on tracks and silently moving the furniture out of the way – or trying to – goes to show how much effort went into even the simplest of the film’s set-ups. Throw in cast interviews on location, and it’s a great insight into the Miike group at work.