Production year: 2010
Runtime: 106 mins
Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Cast: Matsu Takako, Okada Masaki, Kimura Yoshino
I am not a fan of the Japanese high-school genre in both film and TV drama.
I find that it too often follows an overused formula of: delinquent class, new naive enthusiastic teacher, class hate teacher, class have an epiphany, teacher gets in trouble, class save teacher, and they all live happily ever after (rinse and repeat over the next 50 years).
|Woo! We spent the last two years fuckin' around |
but we still got better Math grades than those white kids!!
But Confessions is one of the most refreshing changes to, not only the genre, but for modern Japanese cinema. Based on a novel by Minato Kanae, the film is a revenge horror story set in a modern-day Japanese high school told through a series of confessions (hence the title). Not everyone will like it. It has many graphically violent scenes, it's not a film for the faint-hearted. It is also flawed by some production choices but it still warrants a viewing for its tenacity.
[Warning: From here on, I highly recommend you see the film first. It may contain spoilers]
The first act of the film is simply stunning and alone is worth seeing the film for. It opens with the quiet mild-mannered schoolteacher/single mother Ms. Moriguchi (played by Matsu Takako) announcing that she will resign from teaching to her delinquent class who care more about throwing milk at each other than her 2 cents. This stark contrast of the out-of-control classroom to the disenchanted calm Ms. Moriguchi is pleasantly unnerving.
She then goes on to confess that her daughter was murdered by two students in the class, whom she refers to as Student A and Student B. Then she continues to tell them that the farther of the child, who was HIV positive, has past-away, and she has injected the HIV positive blood into the milk that they had just drank.
|Boy, that escalated quickly...|
All this in the first 30 minutes does not feel forced due to the subtle characterization by Matsu Takako. She does not change the tone of her voice nor show any emotion throughout the speech, which makes the unsettling content all the more powerful. Less is more. Good characters in stories make you think about their internal conflict. Is she fulfilling her duty as a teacher to punish mischievous students? Or is she seeking revenge as the mother? Or is she simply a psychopath? She does not give anything away.
|Or maybe she is a robot from the future. It's Japan, remember?|
It is unfortunate that the rest of the film, which hardly involves Ms. Moriguchi, is nowhere near as compelling. There are interesting primary characters who each have a moment to shine. Child A, Shuuya (Nishii Yukito), is a child genius who seeks approval from his mother. Child B, Naoki (Fujiwara Kaoru), is the bullied-loser who just wants to fit in. His overbearing mother (Kimura Yoshino) cannot come to grips with his mental instability. The class leader, Mizuki (Hashimoto Ai), associates herself with a teen who murdered her entire family. The replacement teacher, Mr. Terada (Okada Masaki) wants the class to get along, a clear parody of the overly enthusiastic young teacher of the genre (highlighted in the first paragraph of this critique).
Each character has clear motivations and distinct weaknesses that lead to their downfall. They are performed well and in any other teen movie they would have prospered but when you have spent the first 30 minutes setting up the ultimate psychotic emotionless vigilante character, these characters merely feel like teen angst.
|Don't listen to him! You're all special! Each and every one of you!|
The problem is that we know too much. Nearly all scenes of the 2nd act play are devoted to backstory. We learn too much of the characters, leaving nothing for the imagination. The reason why Ms. Moriguchi is so interesting, or say how 'The Joker' from 'The Dark Knight' is a way more memorable character than 'Bane' is because of how little we know and how much we are left to assume of the character.
The devotion to character development also comes at the cost of the progression of the story. Time runs out for a few characters, such as Naoki and Mr. Terada, to have the resolution they deserve. Instead, there is a farcical finale revolved around Shuuya's plot for revenge.
The film is also overly stylised. There are a lot of slow motion flashbacks with a Radiohead song playing in the background. Yes, it does highlight the emotion but it gets old very quickly.
It was almost as the film went on, Director Tetsuya Nakashima had stopped trusting the audience and wanted to make the message as clear as possible or possibly make the film more commercially marketable. But one must think if you're mature and willing enough to watch a film about a teacher torturing her students, you probably don't need Radiohead to understand the emotional development of the characters.
|but they do need a song to dance to...|
Overall though, I highly recommend the film. As I have outlined above, it does have its flaws. It's not great, but its good.
Due to the decrease in film-goers, the inherent problem of modern Japanese cinema is that it too often plays-it-safe with material, trying to cater for everyone.
So it is refreshing to see a uniquely edgy film that sparks debate after the credits roll.
I have yet to read the original novel (I will probably update this critique once I have read it). But I guess they had some rich material to work with.The film raised controversy for questioning the validity of the Juvenile Law that protects children who commit crime under the age of 14. It is a delicate topic and many conservative Japanese people will be turned off seeing this film, which is a shame. But I personally applaud it for the challenge it took and hope that more mainstream Japanese films would deal with social issues.