Confessions (Kokuhaku) – A Review

This is a movie of startling cruelty. It’s about the jackal-instinct in humanity. There isn’t anyone in Confessions you can like. Revenge mutilates everything in the film. The lust for vengeance is like a howling wound. No amount of blood is as shocking as the feelings on display. Either you’re meant to respond with shock, or else, you’re about to have your darkest suspicions about people confirmed. The Japanese school kids depicted here are the descendants of Kenzaburō Ōe’s vision of youth (from his novel, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids – Japan’s answer to Lord of the Flies): they are monsters without conscience. The worst in them is unrelenting. Most have eyes like shards of black ice. Their spite is a voracious wave.

In a stark grey room, a teacher informs her students that she is quitting. They’re over-joyed. As the teacher talks, two things become clear: firstly, that she is used to her students’ indifference, and secondly, that she is making a confession. The teacher’s daughter has been murdered, she tells the class. The two murderers are sat amongst them. The teacher knows that the penalties for young offenders are lax, and that there is scant evidence on which to base a murder conviction (her daughter drowned, ruled “accidental death”). She isn’t interested in going to the police. She wants revenge. This is why she’s put poison in the milk she gave the class (she informs them). Here, at last, they prick up their ears.

The French theatre director Antonin Artaud created what he called the Theatre of Cruelty. “Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle,” he wrote, “the theatre is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.” Confessions, no doubt, would have pleased Artaud. There is no escapism or security here. What you get instead is a blast of black emotions. The movie starts with the murder of a five-year-old…by two thirteen-year-olds. The director wants you to be appalled. There is no comfort for the audience. The teacher, who at first seems justified in her revenge, is slowly revealed to be as sadistic as the killers. She likes hurting them too much, for us to like her. High school, in Confessions, is an abattoir. There are only those who watch and those who suffer to be watched.

Between this and Antonio Campos’ Afterschool, the prevailing mood in education appears to be psychosis. Kids have always been mean as rattlesnakes, it’s true, but that bad feeling has only swelled in recent years. New technology makes it easier to pass around the venom. You don’t even have to be near somebody to inflict a bite. Detachment – the twenty first century’s defining sickness – is rife in Confessions. Bullying is a reflex reaction; there is no thought behind persecuting the weak. It’s just doing what everybody else does; a necessary part of “fitting in”. The most damning indictment in the movie is not for the killers, but for the reaction of their peers. No-one is unaffected by the wilderness in the classroom.

What I love is that this was Japan’s Official Entry for the 2011 Academy Awards. Though well-made, it presents such a scabrous view of the country – and humanity! – that it’s a bit like sending the Academy a letter bomb. Confessions is the polar opposite of Dangerous Minds. It’s like the writer-director, Tetsuya Nakashima, set out to torch Michelle Pfieffer and her kids. There isn’t a noble intention in the entire film. The one teacher who is nice is only a pawn in his predecessor’s grand scheme. No-one is reformed. No-one refrains from being callous. Love is repaid with bloody murder (twice). The real lesson of the film is: hate, hate, hate. It’s a brave sentiment, but it won’t win you the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture.

Movies oughtn’t to be this doomy. We should be mindful of art which confounds cruelty with ecstatic truth. While it’s true that kids are nasty to each other in high school; filming them being cruel, in slow-motion, smacks of sensationalism. Tetsuya Nakashima’s not-so-hidden agenda is to give the Japanese censors a conniption fit. Like Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, the intellectual stuff is just a diversion; this is voyeurism, not debate. The repeated shot of a thirteen-year-old pitching a five-year-old into a swimming pool is there because it’s revolting; Tetsuya wants you to feel sick. He wants the opposite of confession’s release: a polluted feeling with no end, and no hope of redemption. This movie is like pouring waste into your eyes.


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