Japanese films featuring school ijime (bullying) are as common as cherry trees in Ueno Park, and for good reason. When I was teaching at a boys’ high school in Kodaira, western Tokyo, I would sometimes see signs of ijime, such as the returnee kid whose natively fluent English inspired titters from his classmates — until he stopped volunteering to speak. Or the quiet, timid kid who explained his bandages and bruises as the results of sports-club practices — until he stopped coming to school altogether.
But in facing a class of 40 rambunctious 15-year-old boys my first concern was less ijime than order. To keep it, I had to hold their attention with everything from jokes and games to, when all else failed, tossed erasers. (Though my usual target was the wall, not some miscreant’s head.)
Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), the heroine of Tetsuya Nakashima’s pitch-black drama “Kokuhaku” (“Confessions”), teaches a coed class of junior-high freshmen, but has given up trying to contain the chaos. Addressing them on the final day of class, she speaks evenly, slowly and precisely — while her talking, texting and otherwise occupied audience ignores her existence.
She has a reason for her disconnected calm, which is like the numbness of a trauma victim: She is quitting her job — and taking her revenge on those who have destroyed her life. Earlier that year her 3-year-old daughter was found floating face down in the school pool. The police ruled it a death-by-drowning accident, but Moriguchi believed otherwise and, playing detective, unmasked the killers: Two boys in her class.
As she describes the killing she uses pseudonyms for their names, but everyone in the class, by now riveted to every word, knows who she is talking about.
Why doesn’t she turn in the killers to the police? Because they are too young to be tried and convicted. Instead, she plans to rely on the justice of their peers — which she knows will be stern, but pure.
Nakashima, best-known abroad for such colorfully imaginative, blackly comic films as “Shimotsuna Monogatari” (“Kamikaze Girls”) and “Kiraware Matsuko no Issho” (“Memories of Matsuko”), does “Kokuhaku” differently from the usual sort of commercial entertainment. Fans expecting tear-jerking melodrama or brain-teasing mystery will be disappointed.
I wasn’t, since I was acquainted with Nakashima’s earlier, darker work, including “Beautiful Sunday,” a 1998 film that coolly dissects the obsessions and perversions of people living in the same Tokyo condo building, while turning the title into the bitterest of ironies.
Based on a novel by Kanae Minato, “Kokuhaku” is an orthodox mystery in outline, albeit one that comments on everything from the dire state of Japanese education to the still-lingering prejudice against AIDS victims.
Nakashima’s treatment turns genre rules on their heads, however. First, he identifies the two killers early on, draining the film of any whodunit tension. Second, Moriguchi is more like a ghost — dead to every emotion but vengeful rage — than a living being. Her hollow-voiced narration makes the incidents she describes sound as though they are unfolding in another dimension or life.
Lastly, Nakashima films even the most violent and disturbing scenes with visually elegant stylistics reminiscent of the tonier sort of music video, yet another distancing device. The mother of one of the killers (Yoshino Kimura) is screaming her head off at her son’s latest eruption of bizarre behavior — he has become a psychotic recluse since his exposure by Moriguchi — but our eyes are invited to focus on the beauty of the saturated colors, the austere refinement of the composition. Her pain and bewilderment are aestheticized — or rather anaesthetized.
Nakashima’s aim may be to probe beyond surface dramatics to inner truths, the way Terrence Mallick filmed the intrusion of the transcendent into jungle combat in “The Thin Red Line.” But his story, unlike Mallick’s, has a what-if premise that borders on the gimmicky, requiring certain improbabilities to make it work. One example of several: The other killer, a sociopathic science whiz, masochistically remains in school after being outed, allowing Nakashima to stage beautifully horrific scenes of group ijime, but the killer’s stubbornness puzzles.
Despite its artiness and oddities, “Kokuhaku,” has, like much of Nakashima’s work, a strange power. There is no catharsis, no redemption, no hope, but the chill of seeing into the dark heart of evil — and grief — remains.