Between his flirtation with every genre under the sun and his prolific nature, there is absolutely no else in the world like Takashi Miike. For a while now, he has been maturing as a director, seeking more than the exploitation films he made his name with, the apex of which saw him remake the classic Jidaigeki, Harakiri. Lesson of [the] evil sees him head back to his roots as a thoroughly disturbing filmmaker. Based on Yusuke Kishi’s novel of the same name, Lesson of Evil sees someone with a history for the ultra-violence fall into his old habits, murdering both the student body and teaching staff. The conceit of a teacher murdering his students is controversy at its peak, and Miike fully commits, during the first two acts he does his very best to earn that controversy with the same daring moves that defined his 2001 halcyon.
Opening with an epilogue that defined Hasumi’s lifetime of violence, typical territory for such a genre piece, the film shifts itself to the tropes and design of an archetypal high school drama albeit from the perspective of a genial, well-liked member of the faculty. Thereby building on foundations Miike established across his second musical (For Love’s Sake) and his Crows Zero’s adaptations, the dynamics of the school are well-realized, constructing a microcosm that feels true and lived in. That is until undesirable elements start surfacing at the school, whether that is an illicit teacher/students relationship or some slither of Hasumi’s dark nature being sniffed out. For the most part, Miike tastefully establishes the student body and the individuals in it, with standouts in rising stars Shota Sometani, Fujiko Kojima and Fumi Nikaido. Tasteful until Hasumi sensei’s position becomes untenable after having killed too many people to be reasonably explainable. At which point he closes the doors to the school and kills everyone with a high-powered rifle and a very particular plan. The success of which comes from Hideaki Itô, who possesses a malleable duality that makes his Hasumi such a fiercely unpredictable monster.
Even if the pace is on the slow side, the first two acts are a perfectly paced balance between the dark and normal halves, with the dark half being an utterly disturbing and graphic delight. Kudos especially have to go the American flashback and its grotesquely unforgettable finish and the almost Cronenbergian mutations that punctuate Hasumi’s mania. What’s more, Lesson of Evil is a delightfully morbid up till that point, super enjoyable too.
The problem is the final act which – following the slasher trajectory – is where the most concentrated violence is found. Horror is built upon conflict (albeit heightened), and during the final act, Hasumi is the harbinger of a level of one-sided violence, that while visually engaging, isn’t really all that interesting as a spectacle. After all, shooting fish in a barrel is no challenge at all. Add to that the mere suggestion that there is a sequel hinted it is enough to leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Even if it is too long by a good 30 minutes, to leave a bitter taste after two acts of beautifully controlled insanity make it hard to be anything other than disappointed. Luckily, that’s not enough to kill the film off in any way; fans of Miike’s infamous genre experimentation will find much to love even if there is an aftertaste you just can’t shake.