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Far East Extreme: Lesson of the Evil’s Crash Course in Nihilism

Thursday, December 26, 2019 | Opinion


         Hello horror fans! Another year comes to a close, and with it another Far East Extreme. For my money, you couldn’t do this series without at least one Takeshi Miike film, and rest assured this won’t be the only one. The reason? Quite simply, Lesson of the Evil is so disappointing and Miike’s repertoire is so interesting and rewarding otherwise, especially considering how prolific he has been throughout his career. Every artist, no matter how good, has stumbled at some point. Why do I bring up this film, then? Horror movies typically reflect something about society back at the viewer, usually exaggerated for effect. Capitalist consumerism has turned us to zombies in Dawn of the Dead, in the Halloween films (at least the first 3) we celebrate death without being aware of its true significance, and in Ghoulies go to College humanity is reduced to idiotic toilet monsters. No? Hey, it’s not like having a message is a prerequisite for a “good” horror movie; plenty of them say nothing at all. We all like some good, escapist fun. Pure nihilism, however, is trickier territory. Seinfeld was a show about nothing, but that was because plot, characterization, everything could be set aside to tell a good joke. In a similar way, The Changeling, Carnival of Souls, and even Dead Silence, are all horror movies about nothing, but it are still effective because, at the end of the day, being scary and creepy is what counts. Antichrist is neither, but it is at least interesting and memorable. The question I pose to you readers is this: What is a horror movie once it decides that even the horror is no longer important, but still uses the same horror trappings to tell the same story?

            Lesson of the Evil (a dumb mistranslation, Lesson of Evil is just fine and rolls off the tongue better) takes place in a troubled school where cheating, bullying, drug use, etc. are the norm. In a society previously known for harmony and safety, the changing nature of Japanese schools is a real hot-button topic, and I’m usually a sucker for it. This film wastes this great set up, because it has absolutely nothing to say about it, nor does it really try. Hasumi is a teacher at said school, and the film portrays his extreme measures to “educate” his students while recounting his tortured backstory. It does little to actually make Hasumi compelling or explain his motivation, or give a realistic or accurate portrayal of mental illness (again, I don’t think the film is really trying to do so.) Hasumi is a monster because he is a monster when he wants to be, so any mention of the numerous inconsistencies of the character are largely irrelevant because the film isn’t really trying to begin with. In Hasumi’s own words, his motivations have something to do with Norse mythology. Crows play an important role thematically when the film remembers to throw them in, but it is largely throwaway imagery with no real significance.

            Hasumi being “the killer” is really not the hook to this movie; this fact is given away for anyone who’s seen a preview of the film. However, the supporting cast must not have, because it takes them nearly an hour to figure this out. Meanwhile a student named Keisuke and teacher Mr. Tsurii put their minds together to piece together the obvious. Given the gratuity the movie peddles in, having the Scooby Doo BS plot device in order to make “relatable” characters is tiresome, especially so considering the last surviving characters are barely in the movie at all. On the other hand, the characters who are given screen time are hardly developed. This in itself isn’t new or interesting: plenty of slasher films revel in the “dumb teenager plot,” where the only reason a plot happens at all is because the teenagers in question are so dumb and make all the wrong decisions at every juncture, and it becomes cathartic to root for the smarter killer. Lesson of the Evil turns this on its head: since Hasumi himself ends up being a rather dumb killer, most of the reason why he keeps on killing (and killing, and killing) is because he is so bad at hiding his crimes, and gets continually discovered to the point of comedy. All this from a supposed diabolical genius who is a master at manipulating people! Rather than an unreliable character, we instead have an unreliable director, one who tries to show his audience a person who clearly isn’t there. The emperor has no clothes, only in this case he also has no lower body so the fact that he isn’t wearing pants is completely insignificant, and the constant camera pans to his non-existent genitalia therefore utterly pointless.

            Another bait and switch the film pulls is the “gritty realism” in its setup, which attempts to explain the reality in schools and the hardships that students and teachers alike must endure. This reality is all spoiled for an unrealistic payoff. Whether the film is untruthful or reveling in murder fantasy is unclear and honestly unimportant, but what it is, unfortunately, is unsatisfying by nearly every metric. Plenty of movies lament childhood innocence or the lack of it, and here we also see adults that lie, cheat, and steal. This is such an easy target, it begs the question as to why the film has to resort to caricatures to hammer this point home. I’ve never seen so many aggressively pathetic teenagers as are on display here. Most of them don’t even try to get out of the way of bullets; in this world, you can have dumb kids, but you can’t have kids who act as if they’ve never seen a horror movie before! Conversely, Lesson of the Evil’s society is somehow unwittingly utopian and dystopian at the same time: everyone is so dead inside yet somehow have no concept of real violence, so that when a bad thing happens they are at a loss as to how to act at all. These humans have all become like Wells’ eloi without taking a step forward in time. However, it must be said that Hasumi, being reasonably well-acted by Hideaki Ito, starts strong, but he tragically ends up less and less nuanced and more cartoonish the more you learn about him; the opposite of strong character development. Lesson of the Evil lives and dies with Hasumi, and man does it die.

            As mentioned previously, viewers are also “treated” to events in Hasumi’s past that have made him the jolly guy he is today. These events, by and large, focus on his friendship with “Dave,” another would-be baddie. Typical of mainstream Japanese films, they cast especially terrible actors to play the foreigners, though I suppose you could argue most Japanese people couldn’t tell the difference, but surely they’ve seen good western films before? The bad English was fun in Sukiyaki Western Django, here it’s awful.

“What is a horror movie once it decides that even the horror is no longer important, but still uses the same horror trappings to tell the same story?”

          The remainder of the plot is equally humdrum; we see the same old slasher flick tropes, such as the callousness and indifference of everyday people conflated with brutally murdering others. The difference is few dime-a-dozen Hollywood slasher films take themselves nearly as seriously as this one. Where this film doesn’t shortchange us is violence. The movie pulls no punches with scenes of teachers molesting, torturing and killing kids, except this isn’t entertaining either; imagine No Country for Old Men, minus convincing characters and interesting plot. Even here though, we have half measures: the awful CG blood in some of the flashbacks is maddeningly pointless and looks terrible!

            Special mention must also be given to the awful pacing of the film. The first hour is almost all setup and backstory which does its job, flawed though it is. The following 30 minutes is one giant bloodbath, and then a lousy 10 minute wrap-up before the ending credits. There is very little tension once the “mystery” is revealed, we just have to wait for Hasumi to rack up his body count. The movie is not scary simply because it is so obvious, and it overplays its hand badly. Imagine in Seven if the mystery was solved halfway through, or a Friday the 13th sequel that is twice as long with no blood or scares, just the inevitability of death. Sound fun? Again, what we are missing is real tension and suspense: unless the audience has never seen another horror movie, they absolutely know what will happen.

            The worst, however, is saved for last. Despite all the nihilism on screen, the most cynical must be the filmmakers themselves, who include in the terrible Scooby Doo-style ending the promise of a sequel like some action thriller. “And Hasumi will return to theaters near you!” God, I hope not.

            To be clear, I don’t approach this film with a pretense of having the moral high ground, I love a good hunk of nihilism with a second helping of entropy. I think I am as close to this film’s target audience as is possible; I also love Takeshi Miike: Ichi the Killer was nuts, and Audition is probably one of the best horror movies ever made. I didn’t expect a classic, but man, what a letdown. I have to be honest, I hate this film; it is one of the most aggressively pointless bits of cinema I’ve ever seen. I say that while still being a fan of Miike and his work. The only redeeming quality of this film might be to illuminate why some horror films are bad, which is just as important to understand as what makes a good horror film. To object to this film on a moral level is completely hypocritical, because we all enjoy horror films where objectively awful things happen on a screen for our entertainment. Furthermore, to call a piece of media “immoral” is really no indication of quality at all, just a sort of marker of how something or someone has strayed from one’s own values and beliefs. Thus, only Miike himself can speak to whether or not this film is in line with his values as a filmmaker – it makes no difference to me either way. To quote Mr. Horse, “No sir, I don’t like it.”

Alex Ehrenreich
I'm a writer and horror-lover currently living in Tokyo. Be sure to check out my column "Far-East Extreme" where I write about the best in Asian horror cinema every month.