Few things in life are as shocking or unsettling as the betrayal of someone in whom one’s profound trust was invested. Close friends and relatives are two prime examples, but so are figures, such as priests (who have been caught in the spotlight for very un-Christian acts in recent years) and teachers. Just as school boards put their trust in an employee to educate, so to do the students put their trust in the teacher as a beacon of knowledge and even guidance. A teacher that has anything but the well being of the students is a frightening idea, one that infamous director Takashi Miike takes to an extreme in Lesson of the Evil.
Seiji Hasumi (Hideaki Itô) is a teacher like no other at Shinko Academy. Having been under its employment for just over a year, he as made an impression on some students for the fact that he is younger and definitely more handsome than most. More than that however, he has an incredible knack for solving embarrassing issues, such as students caught plagiarizing or contentious student-teacher relations. Just why is he so good at eliminating problems? The truth behind his methods promises to be quite surprising and put everyone at the school, in particular the students themselves, in grave danger.
Anyone knowledgeable of Takashi Miike would agree that he is no stranger to controversy. Visitor Q, Icihi the Killer and Audition are but some of his efforts which had him earn considerable notoriety. For a brief period it looked as though the director was swaying away from his provocateur projects with a string of crowd pleasers (13 Assassins, Ace Attorney: The Movie) and even an honestly touching remake of Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. The title alone of Lesson of the Evil should be something of a giveaway to audiences as to Miike’s intentions with his latest. Admittedly, the director opts to start things off slowly, setting up the characters, from the initially attractive professor at the center of the picture as well as several student characters and other teachers who play prominent roles in what follows. Eventually odder, discomforting and, frankly, morally questionable actions are taken revealing a very different side to Hasumi than anyone could have foreseen, save perhaps the audience.
The presentation, specifically the editing, is a bit unfocused in the first third, as though Miike is too anxious to arrive at what he probably considers the good stuff, but it nonetheless serves a distinct purpose. Ultimately, Lesson of the Evil operates like a nightmare, doing so on multiple levels. In that sense, the film is of interest to genre fans even though the final half hour will undoubtedly be a stunning turnoff for the vast majority of viewers. The idea of the nightmare is explored in three ways, the first being within Hasumi himself. Whereas he presents himself at school to be a charming, level headed individual, in reality he suffers a form of psychosis. At night his mind conjures up vivid memories of his time spent working in the United States during which time he met a serial killer (Daniel Genalo) who tapped into his own deranged mind, thus releasing the vicious killer residing quietly in Hasumi his whole life. These nightmares are what encourage him to follow through with the idea of ridding the school of its bullying and cheating problems by eradicating everyone.
On another level the students themselves find themselves living a nightmare when they inevitably connect the dots between Hasumi’s increasingly odd behaviour and the mysterious death of faculty members and students at a previous school he taught at. Many still believe in Hasumi until their very last breath, understanding his betrayal of their trust all too late as he desires nothing more than too obliterate them. Thirdly, Miike communicates the nightmare to the audience with an exceptionally realized climax occurring one night at school as his class makes the final decorative preparations for an upcoming celebration. Multicoloured bright lights, fantastical and exaggerated cardboard characters lying about, the scale of the school itself with its many stories and possible ways of getting trapped, these are all utilized to unnerving effect when Hasumi acts out on his deadly instincts. The end result is a sequence which is honestly hard to watch at times, with Miike giving in to his own ostentatious, controversial instincts by depicting the merciless deaths of at least 30 odd students, many of whom plead for their lives in fear only to be blown away by shotgun fire.
For however repulsive the character of Hasumi is, Hideaki Itô is actually excellent at playing the part with a disgusting sneer and discomforting glee, obviously giving himself completely to the role. For what it is worth, not every actor can convincingly play a suitably creepy maniac. Itô is absolutely convincing, although for many that may not exactly be understood as a compliment.
By the films’s end, some may be exhausted, others will be disgusted and feel as though they need a hot shower while a few of the real hard core Miike and genre enthusiasts will somehow or someway find the movie a top notch thriller. Word of warning, Lesson of the Evil is not an easy movie to get through. As stated, it starts off a bit unevenly and once it really gets going it does not pull any punches. In fact, it does everything it can to hit harder and harder. It definitely works as an eerie genre exercise with the ideas of trust and betrayal ambiguously explored. One need however brace themselves for a real shocker of a finale.