Tetsuya Nakashima’s latest film “Confessions” (2010) tells the dark tale of a homeroom teacher who exacts justice from two middle school students after they murder her 4-year-old daughter. Recently released on Blu-Ray by Third Window Films, it swept the Japan Academy Prize earlier this year and was shortlisted for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards here in the U.S. Based on a novel by Minato Kanae, the highly stylistic, psychological thriller presents each character’s point of view by intricately joining audio/visual elements into a series of flashbacks, or confessions.
Nakashima began his career as a music video director and is considered one of the most innovative filmmakers working in Japan today. His past offerings include the visual stunners, “Kamikaze Girls” (2004) and Memories of Matsuko (2006.) In Confessions, somber yet saturated colors are juxtaposed with oblique camera angles reinforcing the detached delivery of the excellent cast. Flashbacks play out in a slow, dreamlike fashion, enhanced by an atmospheric soundtrack. In contrast, scenes during which emotions run high, as in the violent confrontation between Naoki and his mother, are brilliantly colored and accompanied by chaotic sounds from the experimental band Boris.
Blues and grays bathe the classroom in cool light during the jaw-dropping opening sequence. Teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) calmly announces to her unruly class that she has had enough and will be leaving the school. Slowly, their antics die down as she unfolds the story of her child’s murder and identifies the killers as members of the class, students A and B. Coolly, she goes on to explain how even the most heinous crimes committed by juveniles go unpunished under to Japanese law, so she has taken it upon herself to see that justice is served. Moriguchi cleverly plays on her students’ naïveté and prejudice when she reveals the milk cartons drunk by A and B have been tainted with HIV infected blood.
The class reacts in horror and revulsion as they rush away from the two boys, Shuya Watanabe (Yukito Nishii) and Naoki Shimomura (Kaoru Fujiwara.) But the plan is merely in its first stage; Moriguchi counts on the class itself to enact the second step. When Shuya returns to school the following day, the class turns on him with merciless bullying. Naoki retreats to his room where his behavior grows increasingly bizarre, letting his hair and nails grow, refusing even to wash. During Naoki’s confession we learn that the dirt and stink of his body remind him that he is still alive.
These confessions draw us nearer the characters as we strive for some understanding of their inexplicable cruelty. Nagashima flips our sympathies off and on like a switch with brief glimpses of humanity, quickly followed by the revelation of some unforgivable truth that makes us recoil. However we may understand Moriguchi’s pain, and in spite of the calculated, selfish behavior of Shuya and Naoki, the final stage of Moriguchi’s revenge completely destroys these boys and it is devastating. Most chilling is her psychological exploitation of their youthful weaknesses, their gullibility, need for acceptance, and lack of rational thought. This psychological tour-de-force is marred slightly by a weak final moment, but it takes very little away from the brilliant complexity of the film. Superbly acted, flawlessly layered in meaning and cinematic detail, “Confessions” is a film entirely deserving of all the attention it has gotten.