Lesson of Evil (Japan, 2012)
A serial killer is posing as a teacher at a school, and is obsessed with observing his colleagues and students in their classes and extra-curricular activities. He is also obsessed with the song ‘Mack The Knife’ in its various versions. Essentially, Lesson of Evil is Battle Royale (2000) meets Ichi The Killer (2001), especially when the murderous teacher can no longer suppress his bloody urges. Miike, as always, gives the images and actions on-screen a dose of exciting style. And yet the film also misses the mark at some points.
The story is slow-burning at first. Seiji Hasumi (Hideaki Ito) is a likeable English teacher who ruffles the hair of his students, whether they are either are naughty or well-behaved. He tries to deal with issues in and outside of the classroom diplomatically. However, he eventually gives in to extreme behaviour to maintain discipline at the school. Hasumi begins by jamming cell-phone signals to stop students cheating, and then blackmail and having sex with a female student, before committing bloody murder with a shotgun to cover up his earlier killings. The scenes involving the violent climax are carried out amidst colourful backgrounds and a lively rendition of ‘Mack The Knife’, which adds black humour to the final massacre.
In between these sequences, we are shown snippets of Hasumi’s backstory – from revelations about his parents to a brief dalliance with a fellow killer in the United States. Nonetheless, Hasumi’s motives behind his murderous behaviour remain mysterious and unexplained. This is fine for a serial killer film, as more mystery creates more suspense and horror. In Lesson of Evil, though, one has to wonder why there are so many flashbacks scenes, if they do not reveal anything. Unfortunately, the flashbacks simply add to the running time, making the film feel a lot longer than it needs to be. Miike may be showing his ability to faithfully adapt the original novel, by Yusuke Kichi, but it does not really add to the atmosphere or the characterisation of Hasumi. Miike manages to do that by the scenes he composes.
Crows feature again as a pattern throughout Lesson of Evil. Hasumi’s dilapidated abode – at odds with his polished appearance – is a favourite spot for a particularly noisy one. Eventually, Hasumi rigs a trap that electrocutes it. Similarly, those who get in his way at the school, or misbehave, are punished just as fatally. Hasumi’s exclamations of ‘excellent’ are encouraging initially in the film, but then take on a completely different meaning when he encounters students that have discovered his secrets.
This slow build-up suggests the final massacre – established by the film’s theatrical and home media marketing materials – should be a satisfyingly sinister and gruesome climax. Instead, it is a very colourful, musical, and almost hilarious affair. The students have just decorated the school as a haunted house, and Hasumi arrives to give them all a fatal surprise. It is bombastic compared to the earlier scenes of slow revelations concerning the teacher’s bloody background. In addition, the huge amount of CGI blood does not really help with the shock factor of the massacre. Miike’s bigger budgets may now allow for such effects, and they were used appropriately in 13 Assassins (2010), but many of the scenes here would have looked better with some old fashioned squibs.
The criticisms are minor, as there is a lot to like if you are a Miike fan and do not mind spending two hours following the actions of a secretly violent teacher. Also, Miike’s haunted house finale may have been an influence on subsequent horrors, such as Adam Wingard’s The Guest (2014). Both films rely heavily on their visual style, which is a potential selling point for any cinephile. At the same time, this points to another criticism of Lesson of Evil, as more could have been made of a satirical view of high school, which Hasumi’s actions often hint at. Miike has never been one for themes and messages, though. Style and entertainment have always been at the core of his fast-moving filmmaking, and Lesson of Evil acts as further evidence of these intentions.