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Confessions (Kokuhaku)

dir: Tetsuya Nakashima
[img_assist|nid=1381|title=Remember the days of the old school yard? We used to bleed a lot|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=300]
From revenge… to more revenge. This time, we’re doing it Japanese style.

Now, just to get all simplistic, reductive and borderline racist, if the old saying regarding revenge goes that it is a dish best served cold, like sushi, then what this particular director and cast do is take that revenge, like a platter full of sushi, dip it into a tank of liquid nitrogen, and shatter the freeze-burned remains with a HIV-covered sledgehammer.

Man, do they serve this revenge up cold. And, man, do the Japanese hate school kids.

Confessions is a flick where a whole bunch of people confess to each other or to us in the audience in order to tell the story. There are bits where people talk to each other, but mostly people are talking in monologues.

Our first speaker is a junior high school teacher who explains to her class that she’s quitting her job, and why. For the next half hour, mostly she stands in front of the class and talks earnestly but quietly to a bunch of savages who are barely in their teens. They carry on like they’re on the island from either Lord of the Flies or Battle Royale, just with lots of texting involved, but they listen and react whenever she says any crucial element of her story.

For what is mostly a monologue, the editing carries on in a determined but spastic manner, with hundreds of postcard shots, shots of kid’s mobiles as they comment on what they’re hearing, with a constantly moving camera that doesn’t want to allow for the possibility that maybe what’s being told to us is mostly boring.

It’s not, I guess, because what the teacher, Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) is telling them, and us, is the story of why she’s just infected two of the kids in the class with HIV.

Does she have a good reason for doing something so awful? Well, these kids are pretty fucking annoying, so, possibly, yes, she does. But there’s a specific crime that two of these fucking brats have committed, resulting in the death of the teacher’s daughter. This is revenge on two children for killing another child.

How did they get away with it? Well, either in the perverse universe that this flick inhabits, or actual Japanese law, teenagers can apparently murder each other with few if any consequences. Of course, being an ignorant gaijin, maybe I’m not that conversant with the Japanese legal system as it relates to minors. Maybe laws were enacted in order to thin out the ranks of overly abundant brats. It’s very unlikely, though. I don’t think we’re supposed to take it completely literally as if the flick’s a documentary. It’s so stylised, perhaps too stylised, to take as a serious drama.

It’s also incredibly violent, with people doing horrible shit to each other, which they confess the reasons for doing so to us as to why.

The confessional pulpit then shifts to other characters as they elaborate on the murder of the teacher’s daughter, their reasons for doing so, their reasons for persecuting the two students responsible, or their reason for supporting them.

There’s something particularly disturbing about having kids as the antagonists in this, but these are, I guess, resonant themes in Japanese society. Even broader than that, though, I couldn’t help but recall, especially in the actions and behaviour of one of the boys involved being Shuya Watanabe (Yukito Nishii) a connection with Columbine. Not just the Columbine shootings perpetrated by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold back in 1999, or the profiles of the two morons that perpetrated this horrible outrage, but also some of the imagery and aesthetics around it, including the very loose retelling of the Columbine killings in the Gus Van Sant flick Elephant.

Of course, thankfully, this flick isn’t anywhere near as slow or tedious as Elephant was. And it indulges overtly in over-explaining and over-delivering information about every aspect of the story, something which Elephant never did. Someone is talking constantly at every given moment, and very little of it is dialogue. One could say that it’s a pretty piss poor way to tell a story. The phrase ‘show, don’t tell’ doesn’t really come into it.

I can’t argue whether this was the best way to tell this story or not, because whatever else may be true, it’s hellishly effective. After the initial teacher’s monologue, I wasn’t entirely sure where the flick was going to go, since the rest of it seems to be dealing mostly with the fates of the two boys, how they cope with the teacher’s revenge plan, and how they’re going to move on, if they are, with their lives.

Also, especially in the case of Shuya, we get a long elaboration on his motives, his state of mind, the depths of his sociopathy, and his ultimate plan. A lot of this occurs through revisiting earlier scenes and showing us just a little more detail which transforms our understanding of events, usually in very depressing ways. Just when, after months of persecution by other students, Shuya seems like at least he’s made a friend in the form of a girl who’s something of a sociopath herself, it all crumbles apart because she mocks his absent mother.

Mothers. Mothers are the key to this flick. A mother is planning an elaborate and cruel revenge that would make Titus Andronicus or the Russian mob piss their pants. A mother’s absence fuels Shuuya’s ever more horrific acts. And Naoki’s mother, he being the other child involved in the teacher’s child’s death, has made matters worse with her overprotective and in-denial ways, somehow blaming the child for getting murdered, and the other mother for blaming her fucked up son.

Both of the boys have paths, but they’re very different paths. The greatest surprise, resulting in the grand culmination of the ending, is that the teacher’s revenge has not even yet begun.

Oh, and what a feast of vengeance it is, far more terrifying and all-encompassing than anything managed in even the most violent of revenge thrillers. Killing or torturing those that have wronged you physically is for amateurs. The revenge here is positively Shakespearean – biblical in its enormity.

That’s what ultimately saved the flick, in my opinion. Make no mistake: it is a singularly nasty piece of work, with not a single ‘nice’ character in the whole flick, and that includes a whole classroom full of kids. About the only ‘nice’ character is the little girl who’s innocent life is snuffed out by the murderous bastards in question, and possibly an easily manipulated but well-meaning male teacher who tries to support the students in their various hours of need.

Beyond that, it’s hard to ascribe a deeper motive to the proceedings. Everything seems calculated mostly to bring us to the “Oh… goddamn” realisation at the end of the flick, not anything about the corrosive nature of revenge or any lessons about guilt or redemption or anything as facile or absurd as that. It constructs a universe pushing out a believable sense of reality just that little bit further to allow for an ‘unreal’ scenario where vengeance of this scale is not only possible but enjoyable.

It’s hard to take it too seriously, because the hyper editing and constant flow of jarring imagery, the incessant patter of the narration, and the stylistic tricks indulged in perpetually remind us we’re watching a jagged, highly aware construct of a movie. Also, the frequent image of children covered in blood or committing horrid acts never ceases to be disturbing, but you get inured to it over time, especially when you realise how arch and darkly comical it’s trying to be.

It’s probably an aesthetic triumph, and I thought the use of music was pretty surprising. I wouldn’t have expected a Japanese flick to have oodles of Radiohead on it, but the most surprising for me is the awesome song Farewell by drone metal outfit Boris used so perfectly in the denouement. It’s surprising to me because I didn’t think anyone knew about Boris in Japan, despite the fact that they’re Japanese.

It’s a hard ask, and it makes me wonder, without getting any answers, why Japanese storytellers, screenwriters and directors hate ‘the kids’ so much, or at least see them as these monsters-in-waiting, but the power of this unconventionally told story can’t be denied.

8 times it’s not as if I needed any reminders not to mess with single mothers out of 10

“This is your only chance of redemption. Just kidding.” - Confessions