Best Film winners at the Japanese Academy: Confessions

When I started watching Confessions (Kokuhaku), I had no idea what to expect, not having bothered to read any reviews or blurbs. I had picked the movie just because it had won the 2011 Best Film award of the Japanese Academy. By the end of the film, I was trying to understand what it was about this film that appealed to the viewing public (it was a modest box office success) and the Academy voters. Did they see this as a biting social satire with an underlying message about the need to raise kids better? Or perhaps Japanese adults also shared the director’s view that their youth are disaffected, disconnected, angst-ridden and selfish and therefore this revenge tale gave them some sort of vicarious satisfaction? Surely, if seen as a straight-up psychological thriller then it should not qualify for so high an honor as the best Japanese film of 2010; not when it was up against movies like About Her Brother (directed by the legendary Yoji Yamada), Takashi Miike’s samurai spectacular 13 Assassins and Villain (by Hula Girls director Sang-il Lee). Some bloggers even felt that the box office success was due merely to the loyal fan base of singer-actress Takako Matsu turning up at the theatres.

The opening segment features a long monologue by Middle School class teacher Ms. Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) intercut with some flashback scenes. The teacher informs her unruly students that she is handing in her resignation and they will have a new teacher when they return from spring break. She then shocks them by saying that the recent accidental death of her young daughter (she was found in the school swimming pool) was actually cold-blooded murder by 2 of her students. She then names the students (one has openly confessed to her already while the other has been protected by his mother) and expresses her frustration that as minors, these 2 boys will be protected from severe punishment by Juvenile Law. She therefore details out her own elaborate revenge plan to the horror/ fascination of the assembled students.

The story then continues past the spring break through the new term as we see the lives of the 2 boys start to unravel. Other significant players in the drama are the class teacher, the parent of one of the boys and a girl in the class who is attracted to the other boy. As a viewer, it’s easy to hate the kids as none of them show any redeeming qualities whatsoever. None of the adults are likeable either, all being portrayed as either stupid, self-centered or in constant denial. Takako Matsu plays the class teacher as someone leeched of all feeling/ emotion due to the death of her daughter, living now for the sole purpose of exacting revenge through a cunning cat-and-mouse play. The violence and the irredeemable nature of the students recalls the cult classic Japanese drama-thriller Battle Royale. On the other hand, the glazed/ disconnected looks of the school kids and their lack of any emotional depth recalls the appearance and demeanor of the children in both 1960’s Village of the Damned and Michael Haneke’s award-winning The White Ribbon from 2009.

The story is told in a semi-impressionist style, so don’t look for too much logic or detail (for example, why haven’t the other students told their parents about all this, why is there no intervention from school authorities, etc.).

The movie’s 55-year-old director Tetsuya Nakashima is considered to be one of the important contemporary directors in Japan today, making a series of films depicting troubled relationships in the modern world. His latest effort, The World of Kanako has also created a lot of controversy for its relentless physical and psychological violence.

Confessions is one of those films where I really don’t know what to think at the end of it, except to be afraid that the urban First World school kids depicted in the movie are closer to reality than fiction.

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