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Lesson of the Evil
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by Jay Seaver

"Japanese for "Dead Teenager", in plural form."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The late Roger Ebert would use the phrase "dead teenager movie" dismissively, probably with the intention of getting horror fans riled up half the time. And while it's not great form to glibly dismiss an entire genre, sometimes it serves up a movie like "Lesson of the Evil" ("Aku no Kyoten"), which seems to have very little purpose but to generate dead teenagers.

Well, it does also give Hideaki Ito a chance to show off a bit. Ito plays Siji Hasumi, the most handsome, popular teacher at a Tokyo high school who is also a homicidal maniac, and he puts the charm to work. The script calls for him to smile wide, tousle students' hair, and otherwise be friendly even once the audience has been made aware of how unhinged he is, and it's to his credit that he doesn't overplay his hand - he shifts down to merely easygoing when necessary and believably blends in because he doesn't overdo being cheerful at the wrong times. Of course, "the wrong times" doesn't include when he's actually committing crimes, part of what makes the movie sneakily fun to watch is that Hasumi enjoys murder the way other people enjoy pick-up basketball.

Such a big character is almost guaranteed to overshadow a great many of his co-stars, though, and that's very much the case here: There are dozens of teenage characters for him to go through, some of who serve rather similar functions, and none of the jump out as worthy adversaries or interesting counterpoints or even exactly likable enough that the viewer will get riled up about seeing that particular kid in danger. At times Miike (who also adapted the screenplay from Yusuki Kishi's novel) goes the serial-protagonist route a la Psycho, but none of the kids have what it takes to make "will this guy be the one to figure things out?" compelling, although Mitsuru Fukikoshi makes a good run with a teacher who is as naturally off-putting as Ito is charismatic.

Still, once Miike and company decide to recognize this large cast of characters for the bulk quantity of potential victims that they are, it's tough to argue with the enthusiasm director and star muster to wipe them out. It's not always the most creative sort of rampage - a simple shotgun gets a lot of use, but there's enough variety to occasionally shock, and the movie gets good mileage out of attacks coming out of nowhere, not necessarily passing any sort of judgement as to the victim's worthiness, and teasing that maybe, just maybe, this guy/girl will be able to escape because he/she certainly seems determined. Miike keeps the energy up; he and editor Kenji Yamashita do heroic work timing things so that each individual death shocks a little, rather than provoking fatigue and ennui.

And yet, it's still hard to hide that there's not much to it. For as much fun as the final rampage is, it more or less does away with any attempt to find a method in Hasumi's madness. There seems to be a twisted sort of over-punishing kids for their transgressions thing going on early, and there are flashbacks to his apprenticeship as a serial killer at Harvard (as a Cambridge resident, I wonder where those woods are), but it comes down to "he's a crazy psychopath". Straight crazy does give Miike room to throw a lot of strange stuff in there (that gun...), but it doesn't leave a two-hour-plus movie which ends with the promise of more a whole lot of heft.

Not that this movie is particularly going for heft; even if it's got enough polish to look good on-screen and little in the way of sex, it's still an exploitation-movie throwback right down to the vaguely second-class-looking photography to a cheesy, poster-ready tagline coming in the middle of the action. Miike has done enough of this and is good enough at it to make the money shots work, but he and the genre are capable of much more.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=25347&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/21/13 00:34:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Stanley Film Festival For more in the 2014 Stanley Film Festival series, click here.

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