Confessions | reviews, news & interviews
An incendiary thriller featuring murderous Japanese schoolchildren
Based on a novel by Kanae Minato, Tetsuya Nakashima’s provocative, serenely sinister thriller is fuelled by the murderous desire of its teens and the righteous anger of their teacher. Best known for the inebriated mania of Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko, in Confessions Nakashima trades his outrageous rainbow hues for a distinctly funereal aesthetic. It’s as if a dark veil has been drawn across his signature style, with the film bowed in sombre recognition of its troubling subject matter.
Confessions opens on familiar scenes of unruly schoolchildren, in this case Class B, who are all but oblivious to their teacher’s presence. The seventh-graders drink from milk cartons, accompanied by the soundtrack’s sickly-sweet promotional ditty. Although their behaviour is entirely recognisable for 13-year-olds, even in the film’s first moments there are clues to its dark, incendiary agenda: the dimly lit, almost overcast classroom; the juxtaposition of saccharine music with gloom; and the use of slow-motion, which gives conspicuous weight and a mysterious significance to the teenagers’ seemingly innocuous behaviour.
It’s the last day of term, and Miss Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) surprises the children by announcing that she plans to quit teaching, provoking a disrespectfully rapturous response. However, this is just the first of many revelations from a vengeful educator, each more alarming than the next. For instance, she reveals to the class the insecurities of one pupil, which were confided to her in a text. Moriguchi stresses how important maintaining boundaries was for her and cites a cautionary example of a male teacher who had responded to a cry for help from a female student, only to find himself the victim of a cruel prank.
With the children’s intermittent but increasingly rapt attention, Moriguchi (pictured below) begins to detail her personal circumstances. She tells of how she became pregnant ahead of her planned marriage to her partner, who they subsequently discovered was HIV-positive. She reveals she had the child but in the end the couple didn’t marry for fear of the stigma that would follow. Her daughter Manami was the apple of her mother’s eye but, the month before, the four-year-old was found dead, floating in the school’s swimming pool. Yet this was no accident. Moriguchi reveals - with a strange, formidable composure – that Manami was killed by students in this very class. After the culprits have been exposed, in a final understated hurrah she unveils her terrible plan for revenge. As the title card starkly reads, this is Yuko Moriguchi’s confession.
It’s a bleak and confounding opening sequence - showing a teacher condemning and humiliating her charges before branding two pupils murderers and enacting vengeance. Furthermore it’s executed with considerable panache. It appropriates the form of a murder mystery’s final unmasking, yet occurs at the film’s outset with the "detective" a teacher while the "villains" are children.
Moriguchi’s expositional monologue, interspersed with illustrative flashbacks, runs to a full half an hour. As an opener it’s rather lengthy, perhaps unbalancing the film, and it sets a rather sedentary pace. Overall, however, Confessions does not outstay its welcome at a more-than-manageable 103 minutes and, as the title suggests, it has further revelations up its sleeve. The film goes on to explore the confessions of those accused: Shuya Watanabe (Yukito Nishii) and Naoki Shimomura (Kaoru Fujiwara), as well as those of Naoki’s smothering, delusional mother Yuko (Yoshino Kimura), and one of the boys’ classmates (Mizuki Kitahara). Having events recounted by narrators rather than watching the action unfold may be in keeping with the concept of a film which deals in confessions but it doesn’t always make for the most engaging method of execution.
Class B are revealed as overzealous and sometimes psychotic in their desire for attention. When their replacement teacher, the foolish but well-meaning Werther (Masaki Okada), describes his more familiar "older brother" teaching style, the children’s jubilant reaction takes the amusing form of a fantastical, choreographed rendition of KC & the Sunshine Band’s "That’s the Way (I Like It)". These kids are spoilt and petulant and possess unreasonable expectations of authority figures. Shuya’s nefarious behaviour, for example, is shown to be part of a desperate bid to win back his mother’s love.
Watch the trailer for Confessions
At the dark heart of Confessions is the notion that children should be feared because they are not truly accountable for their actions, however maniacal, given the protection afforded them by the law and their parents. This renders the class deeply sinister, imbuing them with a power which belies their diminutive stature. Collectively they are shown as a cruel mob of bullies and individually as deranged and violent. Moriguchi rages to her pupils that, “Your most trustworthy ally and protector is the juvenile legal code. Under Article 41 of the penal code minors are not criminally responsible. You can’t be arrested.”
Confessions leans heavily on its predominantly melancholic pop soundtrack (which features Radiohead and The xx) to the point where it often resembles a rather haunting and mesmeric extended music video. Despite this Nakashima has an extraordinary ability to create resonant, searing images which speak for themselves when dialogue is absent.
A thrillingly left-field choice for Japan’s 2010 Oscar entry (although unfortunately it didn’t make the final five), in Confessions Nakashima reveals his inner emo. He takes a fleeting but key moment from Memories of Matsuko - that of motiveless murder by children - and rigorously explores it, exposing the twisted potential of a generation. Although it’s structurally somewhat perverse, it’s a thematically ambitious, thought-provoking film whose unforgettable imagery is flanked beautifully by sombre melodies.
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