So, do you like Battle Royale? Yes? Well, screw you, you little shit!
This film is a little difficult to summarize without giving too much away, not because of the twists and turns, but because it reveals itself at such a leisurely and deliberate pace that talking about the story seems like just a series of spoilers, but here goes anyways.
Miss Moriguchi announces to her class of rowdy 13-year-olds that she will be resigning before spring break. After going through a couple of reasons why she is leaving, such as her uncertainty of her abilities as a teacher and her certainty of her inability to trust teenagers, she drops the real reason. Her four-year-old daughter, Manami, had drowned in the pool near the school not too long ago. She initially blamed herself for not making sure that Manami was under constant supervision when her caretaker became unavailable.
It wasnâ€™t until after the funeral that Moriguchi figured out the truth. Manamiâ€™s death may have been ruled an accident, but she was actually murdered by two of Moriguchiâ€™s students. And because of Japanâ€™s Juvenile Law of 1947, they are young enough to avoid receiving the punishment that they deserve. It is around this time that the rowdy students (some of whom had left the class, only to return to witness the madness) begin to all pay attention. Moriguchi refuses to reveal the names of the culprits to the class, referring to them as Student A and Student B.
Student A is a straight-A student who just wanted to be noticed for his brilliance and had a bit of sociopathic streak. He had won a science prize, but his achievement was overshadowed by news that a teenage girl had murdered her parents. Concluding that only violence gains attention, he decides to put one of his inventions to more nefarious purposes. So he ropes in Student B.
Student B was a new student. He was constantly ignored and pushed around, but was too lazy to better himself or stand up for himself. When he got in trouble and asked for Moriguchi to come bail him out, she sent a male teacher instead, thinking that this might be some sort of trap. Student B was furious and wanted revenge on both teachers, but especially her. Student A noticed his pent-up rage and pretended to befriend him. Eventually, this partnership leads to the death of a 4-year-old girl.
Even before Moriguchi is done providing her theory of what happened to her daughter, the students are abuzz. While she did not give out their names, it is obvious to everyone that Student A is Shuya and Student B is Naoki. But Moriguchi knew what she was doing. Even if she had told what she knew to the police, Shuya and Naoki would only get put through some therapy and released if they pretended to have recovered. So Moriguchi decides to throw them to their fellow students. Her students are not interested in justice or revenge; only one of the students expressed any sort of grief over the death of a young child (and immediately got mocked for shedding tears), but they are all looking for targets to torment. Manami’s death is just an excuse for that. Moriguchi took the manipulative and mean-spirited nature of the students and used it as a weapon for her vengeance.
Moriguchi’s replacement is a man who goes by the name Werther. He is lively, he is optimistic, he is completely oblivious to what happened before he arrived. By now, Naoki has become a shut-in, refusing to leave his house and only occasionally leaving his room. Shuya continues to attend school and is subject to bullying when Werther is not there. There is even a contest set up to gauge how much each student is tormenting Shuya and Werther seems oblivious about that as well. The only one who does not participate is Mizuki, and she eventually becomes targeted as well.
Mizuki seems to be a rather introverted girl, silently judging everyone and holding them in contempt, especially Werther. She accompanies him to Naoki’s house whenever he tries to get him to come back to school, but she knows that it is pointless. She does not really care about much, and has contemplated suicide out of pure boredom. Yet, she finds herself drawn to Shuya, probably because of his sociopathic tendencies and quiet violence. It is primarily through Mizuki that the story takes a turn.
This movie is pretty bleak and pessimistic, with characters who are not the best examples of humanity. Outside of Shuya, Naoki, and Mizuki, the teenagers seem pretty interchangeable. Just a mass of meanness. Who has the moral high ground here: child-killers or those who use the murder as an excuse to collectively bully them? I suppose that the latter gets it by default, but it is made clear that they would bully anyone for any reason. Basically, it is a choice between horrible kids and really bad kids. What Shuya and Naoki did was terrible, but it was just one particularly terrible example of teenagers behaving terribly.
While teenagers get implicated in this movie, parents are not completely let off the hook, particularly mothers. Moriguchi seems to have done the best that she could as a single mother. The father of her child was not out of the picture, but it was deemed that an illness prevented him from getting too involved. Her returning to work after Manami turned one may have been necessary, but it also meant that she could not be there for her daughter during that one moment when it went bad. As cynical as she was regarding her students, Moriguchi was so certain that her daughter was safe that she failed to take extra precautions. She did the best that she could, but the world can be impossible. When the unthinkable happened, Moriguchi went off the deep end and emerged cold-hearted.
There are two other mothers in this movie, and they seem to be set as polar opposites. Naoki’s mother seems to be overprotective, treating him as a victim of circumstance and bullying. While Naoki’s father is at work (I don’t believe that we ever see him), she stays at home. When Naoki becomes a shut-in, she is there for him, tolerating his screaming and his other wild outbursts. She has to be there for him, she is his mother after all. There is a dark side to this, though. She refuses to hold her son responsible for Manami’s death, insisting that it was an accident. She blames Moriguchi for everything, particularly for turning Naoki into a wreck. In trying to protect her son, she sees only his victimhood and denies the murderous rage that accompanies it. She enables his behavior, letting it fester while ignoring its implications, even when he turns against her. There are some truths that she doesn’t know, but they are often due to questions that she doesn’t ask. Regardless of her best intentions, she just lets him get worse.
Shuya’s mother does not appear until late in the movie, but it is her absence that is more powerful. She was a scientist who gave up her profession to raise her son, as society said is proper. She tried to instill in Shuya her scientific knowledge, repeating to him that he had her blood. But she grew bitter and resentful. She had given up her life for this kid, and sometimes he just did not get it. Her frustration at her son resulted in abusive behavior, and Shuya’s father had to kick her out and divorce her. So, when Shuya was still a young boy, his mother walked out, leaving behind a whole bunch of books. Shuya became obsessed with learning all that he could to live up to his mother’s expectations and to get her attention. His belief that he inherited his mother’s high intellect is coupled with a desperate need to prove himself. He had no faith in his father or his stepmother, who seemed nice but whom he considered to be morons. He tolerates his classmates, but considers them means to an end or just annoyances who will soon get theirs. All that matters is his impressing birth mother, the one who beat him and then disappeared. She may have insisted that he had her brains simply in order to convince herself that giving up her professional life for a family had not been for nothing. What Shuya heard was that he had to be everything. And all of these morons are preventing him from fulfilling his potential of becoming everything.
So, as I said before, these are not the best examples of humanity. There are very few good characters and they are either sidelined or undermined. It is the bad people who move the story forward. Yet, the movie is not completely misanthropic. It is directed by the same person behind Memories of Matsuko, who asked audiences to celebrate the life of a completely pathetic woman of little worth. This time around, he lets us into the world of those who have or would do the unthinkable. There are a lot of monologues; some of these are characters talking to other characters, some are characters writing to other characters, others are writing in diaries or just internal monologues. Moriguchi’s monologue to the class takes up over 30 minutes of this 107-minute movie, but you might not even notice because so much is happening. Yet, while you are perhaps not noticing, certain things might sink in. Sure, the characters of the smart psycho, the violent dimwit, or the super-emo teen are nothing new, but the movie spends so much time with them that it seems to be asking how you would fare in their shoes. I would not say that they are portrayed sympathetically, especially once things start getting worse. But the movie seems more sad than angry or scared that such maliciousness is allowed to thrive, that the only happiness that these people know come from the pain of others.
Like Memories of Matsuko and the other two films by this director that I have seen, Confessions is an extremely stylish film. Unlike those other films, though, this one has drained quite a bit of its color, displaying a stark and sterile world. The movie uses a lot of quick cuts, constant action, chronological switch-ups, slow motion, multiple-angle shots, and beautiful imagery to distract from the fact that it movie goes at a very slow pace. Some of this may be a means of holding onto the MTV/ADD generation, but it could also be way of showing how the psychological chaos that is all around, regardless of what is actually happening. Certain twists get deliberately spoiled maybe a minute or so before the meaning is revealed. Without saying what it is, there is a sequence towards the end that seems like it could be a climactic image, but is stretched out to around three minutes due to it being in dreamlike slow motion. And then there is the music, which I quite like. There is a variety of styles in the background, from pop to Indie rock and a not-quite-so-well-known Radiohead song. But most prominent are the excerpts from metal band Boris, reflecting the images of beauty and doom. The movie plays several songs twice for reasons that I do not totally understand, but it works.
Confessions was not the feel-good movie of 2010. It is quite bleak and uncomfortable, with redemption and justice pretty much nonexistent. Yet, the movie managed to stay at the top of Japan’s box office for almost the entire month of June that year and ended its 10-week run with $42 million in Japan, which is not Hayao Miyazaki numbers, but is quite respectable for a Japanese movie released in June. Plus, it was the seventh highest grossing Japanese movie of 2010. So, it must have struck a chord with some people. Maybe it will do the same with you if you let it.