Takashi Miike, who makes at least a dozen films a year, has been off making Samurai films and videogame adaptations instead of the blood-drenched thrillers he’s known for, and people have been waiting for his return to that space. Well, it’s come: Lesson of the Evil is tense, horrific, and violent, with a flash of style and black humor that most directors could only dream if. It’s also one hell of a conversation starter, mostly because of the events that take place in the film’s third act. I’ve talked with a number of people about it, and opinions are all over the place. Some say it’s brilliant, others that it’s disgusting.
Me? I fall somewhere in the middle, but it certainly made me uncomfortable.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Lesson of the Evil (Aku no Kyoten | l悪の教典)
Director: Takashi Miike
Seiji Hasumi (Hideaki Ito) is a psychopath, a terrible, horrifying creature without empathy or emotion. He is also the protagonist of Lesson of the Evil. Putting an evil character in a leading role can work, but it is also extremely risky. It’s impossible to identify with a psychopath, and although everything that the character does has some disturbed logic, his actions don’t really make sense. And they escalate, boy do they escalate. The opening scene of his childhood makes it pretty clear that something is wrong, but a single act of violence (horrible though it may be) does not really indicate what’s coming. In fact, all subsequent acts of violence don’t really indicate what’s coming. After the film, I talked to Fangoria’s Mike Gingold, and he says that nothing at all indicates it, and it comes out of completely nowhere. He found it ideologically appalling. I have trouble disagreeing.
You see, the third act is a straight up massacre. Spoiler alert. And I’m saying that because the third act is what defines how people react to the film. Kids die. Lots of them. Brutally and senselessly. None of them did a single thing to deserve it, but that’s what happens. Which is why Lesson of the Evil truly is a film that would never be made in America. School shootings are taboo, and a film that portrays them the way Lesson of the Evil does would be absolutely eviscerated by the court of public opinion. Whether that’s a court anyone should consider is a subject for another time, but no one would want to touch that here, certainly not someone with the kind of draw that Miike has. But because it’s less prevalent in other places, it’s not so forbidden. And because Miike is Miike, he can get away with it.
I was talking with Steve from Unseen Films about this, actually. I’m not completely against what Lesson of the Evil does, despite the fact that I find it pretty awful. But why is that? Was I giving Takashi Miike a pass for being him? The answer is yes. If any other Japanese director made this film (or any other director period) exactly as is, I would be far less forgiving. And it took me a while to figure out why I felt that was the case, but I got it: It’s because Miike didn’t have to do this. He’s a big shot who can basically make whatever he wants. When he makes a film like this, it’s not because he’s trying to draw controversy for the sake of controversy. For him, a school shooting is less a click-baity headline and more a substantial editorial. He has something to say, and he has earned the right to say it. I don’t know that it’s worth listening to, though.
The reason it’s bad is because it’s funny. Not laugh-a-minute comedy riot, but consistent black humor that plays along with children’s heads being blown up by a shotgun. It took me a little while to even realize it was happening. My visceral reaction to people in the audience laughing was an assumption that I was either surrounded by sickos or that they were laughing uncomfortably, as is wont to happen in screenings like this (uncomfortable laughter, by the way, is the worst kind), but I slowly realized that they were supposed to be laughing. I doubt anyone in the theater was laughing joyously, but it wasn’t one guy occasionally chuckling; it was damn near everyone at one point or another. I honestly don’t remember if I laughed or not, but I didn’t find it particularly funny either way.
I can’t bring myself to hate the film, though, because I’m a sucker for style. Even the most ardent detractors of the film couldn’t deny the technical talent on display in Lesson of the Evil, which may actually make the whole thing worse (much of A Serbian Film‘s effectiveness comes from its visual beauty). The school carnival setting that acts as the final act’s backdrop allows for some brilliant use of color and lighting, and they are used to full effect. Even before things take a turn for the completely insane, though, it’s a very pretty film. It’s not mind-blowing (poor word choice…), but Miike has proved himself yet again.
I doubt that Lesson of the Evil will go down in history the way that Ichi the Killer and Audition have, even though it’s more horrific than either of them. The over-the-top violence will convince some people that the film’s conceptual nightmare is justified, or at least less of an issue than most people make it out to be, and I can see why that would be the case. I can completely understand why a person might love this film. It’s very well made, and for the first two acts it was easily one of the best films I had seen at the festival. But as the slaughter went on and the audience’s laughter became more apparent, my enjoyment became increasingly tempered. The thirtieth blood spray was no more meaningful than the twentieth, and I expect that was the point. Turn the mirror onto the audience and make them suffer for their enjoyment of the massacre of children. Make them think about the fact that they are still there, still watching. Sick, sick people.
But just because a message explains the madness doesn’t mean it justifies it. I was able to mostly see past Lesson of the Evil and enjoy it. There are many people who won’t. So take this score with a larger grain of salt than usual. And ask yourself: are you okay with being asked to laugh at the killing of teenagers? Your answer to that question is your answer to whether or not you can stomach Lesson of the Evil, and whether or not you should watch it.
Welcome back Miike, you sick, sick bastard.