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A flashy over-rated revenge drama
on 5 September 2016
I’m somewhat bemused to see Nakashima Tetsuya’s 2010 Japanese junior high school drama Confessions (Kokuhaku) so highly rated both here and elsewhere. It is part of a trend of films centered on violence in Japanese schools which can be traced back to Kinji Fukasaku’s notorious 2000 Battle Royale (ripped off by Quentin Tarantino for the character of Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill) and remains consistent with the stylistic overkill inherent in this type of film. Wall-to-wall rock music (Radiohead mixed with two Japanese bands, The Xx and Boris) overlays flashily edited visuals resulting in what is in effect a 106 minute pop promo video. The film has clearly been constructed on a computer program (replete with completely unnecessary CGI effects) with acting performances being hacked apart by rapid editing to the extent that we can’t really comment on how good they are. Zero characterization combined with this hip ‘style’ makes the film as Mark Kermode says, ‘virtually impenetrable on an emotional level.’
All of which is a shame for underneath the technological overkill lie issues within Japanese society which are in dire need of proper address. The spat of films focusing on violent incidents in Japanese schools illustrates that in reality everything is pretty far from OK here. I have worked in Japanese schools for over 20 years and can verify that the extent of violence, bullying, restlessness and complete breakdown in discipline shown in this film does indeed exist. This may surprise many of you who think of Japanese kids as simply polite and obedient. Think again. Most obviously in the spotlight are extreme incidents like the girl who beheaded her friend because she made disparaging remarks about her appearance on a social media website, the kid who impaled his classmate’s head on the school gate, the boy who killed his mother, severed her head, put it in a plastic bag, put the bag beside him on the floor of a video arcade where he played games for a while before giving himself and the bag to the police. Underneath these extreme examples runs the everyday unruliness of many schools here. In the last year in my area a junior high school had to be closed early on several occasions because teachers couldn’t control the kids. During tests students lay down in the corridor, throw burning toilet paper rolls out of windows and set off fireworks in their classrooms. When the city mayor visited the school he was pelted with tennis balls. Police regularly patrol the area by day while we hear the kids riding with bosozokku motorcycle gangs by night. Bullying is rife, teenage suicide is common and it has reached the stage where in order for kids to get any kind of education at all they have to go to expensive private cram schools to fill the holes left by the lack of teaching going on in their own schools. There exists the phenomenon here of ni-nen byou or ‘second grade sickness’ that acknowledges that kids are at their most difficult when they are in the second grade of junior high school. Recently kids are starting to turn nasty even earlier than that with many elementary schools resembling zoos to a large extent. On the whole the government authorities play down the situation, largely ignoring it so that when extreme examples which can’t be ignored do hit the headlines they are turned into media sensations which if anything inspire kids to be even more violent.
On the face of it Confessions does present many of these issues. Junior high school teacher Moriguchi Yuko (Matsu Takako) kicks off the film by announcing to her homeroom the news that her four year old daughter has been killed by two of their number and the film charts how she exacts her revenge knowing that the juvenile courts will not punish the culprits severely enough. The film is all plot and it would be wrong for me to reveal anything more than this basic premise. The events are organized under the heading of various ‘confessions’ from the key students involved as well as Moriguchi. Unfortunately this is not upheld rigorously and various events keep imploding from varying conflicting perspectives to make for a veritable mess. In the densely edited mélange we can see the teacher has lost her classroom, the kids are busy playing with their cellphones, reading manga, picking on each other both verbally and physically. Porno and virtual video games along with violence-promoting websites make up the 2D world all the kids seem to live in. The blame is laid accurately if somewhat simplistically at the door of the parents – over-protective monster mothers and weak or entirely absent fathers. Here one boy is pampered to the point where he lacks all self-confidence and is easily used and abused by another classmate. Another boy is abandoned by his mother and his violence is explained by a mama-com (Oedipus complex). Another boy sees that the media take more notice of kids who rebel than kids who succeed academically and so plans accordingly. Another is inspired by a media case into preparing to poison her whole family. Other issues skated on are the appalling ignorance kids have of AIDS and how it spreads (to this day I know schools continue to tell kids that AIDS is brought into Japan by foreigners as if Japanese sex tours to Bangkok don’t exist) and the complete lack of protection provided for teachers who are at the complete mercy of monster parents and their spoilt brat progeny.
All of this flies past us, but none is given a properly thorough treatment. Indeed where we should be presented with these themes in a framework where we care for the characters so that we are moved into deeper involvement, Nakashima turns the issues into mere entertainment with a superficial treatment which is high-octane razzmatazz and little more. It is claimed that the film is closely based on Minato Kanae’s novel, but I seriously doubt if the novel is as shallow. Minato was a 30 something housewife turned first time novelist when she wrote it and I imagine she has much more sympathy for Moriguchi than we see in this film. Crucially we are never allowed to feel her grief or be drawn into her fantastical revenge. The big themes are all ticked off and duly noted, but for Nakashima nothing is more important it seems than the pseudo-dramatic CGI clouds looming ominously over the school or the ludicrous equally fake explosive finale. One day somebody (Kore-eda Hirokazu perhaps?) might make a film which tackles the frail state of the Japanese education system properly. Sadly Confessions isn’t it. Even as a straightforward thriller it fails, the cardboard cut-out characterization making Brian (Carrie) De Palma of the 70s seem a subtle master of psychology in comparison.
Third Window’s presentation of this film is exemplary. The visuals and the sound are both crisp and clear. There is a second disc of extras which as labelled might appear to be two separate films (‘“Final Confessions” by Tetsuya Nakashima’ and ‘”Real Confessions” by students’), but they are not. The first is a 70 minute making of documentary which is rather good. The second is simply a series of interviews with the child actors involved.