To be perfectly honest, I’m surprised that this type of narrative even exists, but with all the true stories (especially from America), there are now films in which students or teachers go berserk in schools and kill people. In Japan, however, there are many more films that have plots that reflect these types of events. And some of them are great cinema, such as Battle Royale (2000), Confessions (2010), Lesson of the Evil (2012), The World of Kanako (2014) and Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club (2012) – yes, that last one really exists. But here comes Assassination Classroom, a sci-fi fantasy film that involves students attempting to kill their teacher to save the world that surprisingly ends up being one of the sweetest films this year. I am not joking.
An unknown extraterrestrial creature has destroyed 70% of the moon and is holding the Earth hostage until the end of the school year. But the demands and deals of the creature are the most befuddling. At Kunugigaoka Junior High School, the delinquents of classroom 3-E, nicknamed the End, will be the ones assigned to assassinate this creature. If any of the students in 3-E can kill it they will save the planet and also win 10 billion yen. He will be their teacher for the school year, teaching regular subjects, and will also teach them about killing with firearms and hand-to-hand combat. But if the class fails, the creature will destroy the Earth on graduation day.
Oh man, where do I start? First off, this isn’t some violent Battle Royale face-off, just to get that impression out of the way. And if you think the set-up is completely absurd, the film goes off into more entertainingly absurd directions. Secondly, I have no prior knowledge of the manga or anime so I cannot compare, but if the film succeeds on its own merits, then familiarity to the source material should be unnecessary. Thankfully, visual exposition about the film’s world is expunged in the first five minutes and it takes just as long to become immersed in the narrative.
The cast of young talent do well in their roles (Masaki Suda is the stand-out being the wannabe hero, while Kang Ji-young does what she can with her underwritten role) that we care enough about them. But the real star is UT (or Koro-sensei). Voiced enthusiastically and sincerely by Kazunari Ninomiya (of boy band Arashi fame), UT is an entertaining and enigmatic presence. Its positioned as a teacher and captor yet it clearly cares about the students more than the teachers do, but considering the position it puts the world in, it is quite an interesting conundrum, similar to the Stockholm Syndrome. There are some flashbacks that hint a dark past about why UT is who it is and I hope it grows into something more, since UT is the best thing in the film.
But the film is nowhere near as dark or brooding as UT, as it has a great sense of fun and energy through most of the running time. The action scenes are fun to watch and there actually is a surprising sense of tension and suspense since we gain sympathy for UT as well as what the students come up against like a similar creature/human who is a match to UT or a scumbag teacher Takaoka (played annoyingly without restraint by Masanobu Takashima). There are also some very funny scenes that either come just from the premise or, of course, UT and his training classes. There’s a scene involving a slumber party that is a definite highlight of hilarity. And the jokes never get beaten to the ground over and over since the pacing is so fast and exhilarating.
But what really stood out for me was how much I was emotionally invested. The film’s message is common in many films (become the best that you can be), but in Assassination Classroom, it is told with such an odd way, that you can’t help but admire its chutzpah. To become invested in such characters going through such hijinks is a huge bet, but it pays off really well. Every single time these students are closer to their goal of killing UT leaves an uncomfortable feeling on the audience and it’s refreshing to see a film that achieves a feel such as this, particularly from a blockbuster.
There are some storytelling problems. Condensing a vast source material into a film is always an immense challenge and Assassination Classroom is no exception in evading the problems that comes with it. Some subplots are obviously shoehorned in (like Nagisa’s childhood friend that isn’t in Class 3-E), unnecessary characters (like Ayaka, a girl who Nagisa has a inkling for) not only toy with the pacing, but it also veers away from the fun tone. Though other subplots are underdeveloped or unresolved due to its open ending, I’m hoping that these will be taken into account in the sequel, which is coming out later next year.
I love a film that can surprise me and Assassination Classroom is one of those films. Having an emotional touch that works a film with such an insane premise is insane. But the film pulls it off and I’m eagerly anticipating the sequel, Assassination Classroom: Graduation.
Assassination Classroom is showing as part of the Japanese Film Festival 2015 Australia which runs from October 14 to December 6. See the festival website for screening times and venues.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.