Though it employs much suspense, Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions (告白) is not a murder mystery, since the audience is told who the culprits are in the first fifteen minutes. Though it is a deeply unsettling film, It is not a horror story, since no forces from beyond the grave haunt the characters. Drama seems too general a term, and the film certainly isn’t action or comedy. How to define it then? Confessions, based on Minato Kanae’s 2008 top-selling novel, is tragedy in the Shakespearean sense. It teases us with lighter moments, which offer occasional relief from the oppressive weight of its themes. And the audience does feel heavier after seeing the film. However, the gravity and darkness of the content is masterfully counterbalanced by the brilliant cinematography and strong score that leave the viewer with a smile on his face. The joy of seeing something new, different, and strangely beautiful. Confessions is MacBeth and The Count of Monte Cristo’s love child, conceived in Japan.
The film’s entire first act is a soliloquy of sorts. Yuko Moriguchi addresses a class of inattentive middle-schoolers. She hands out milk cartons, and extols the drink’s healthy properties. No one listens. The children squirm and move and laugh under her light authority. no doubt counting down the seconds until school lets out. The viewer is also disoriented; the teacher’s words barely register as white noise above the hustle and bustle of youthful activity. There is little color; everything is tinted gray and dark. Ms. Moriguchi mentions another recently deceased teacher, and author, whose words had been a big influence on her career. One of the children recognizes the name; that’s one child now listening. She then tells the class today will be her last day as their teacher. A few more children express surprise, a handful more show interest. Over the teasing and playing still going on, Ms. Moriguchi switches the topic of conversation to her daughter, Manami. More children stop their play and pay attention. She talks about her daughter dispassionately and in the past tense; at this point the viewer realizes Ms. Moriguchi’s words may hold some deeper import. The children listen with the kind of apprehension only afforded by pre-knowledge. The soundtrack and the visuals are somber, as the teacher recounts the details of her daughter’s life, and then death. By the time she says her daughter had been murdered by 2 students in her own class, who remain unpunished because of Japan’s indulgent youth crime laws, everyone is silent. She gives no names, but her descriptions of student A and B make it immediately clear who was responsible. Her words are not theory, not conjecture, but fact. Confessions is no murder mystery; the parlour scene is gifted to the audience from the outset. The viewer thinks back on Ms. Moriguchi’s entire monologue, from the milk cartons, to her husband’s viscerally terrifying fatal disease, and as he adds 2 and 2 together, she “confesses” her own crime to the class. There is no mistake; she is the film’s Edmond Dantes.
The movie jumps forward several months, and examines the aftermath of Ms. Moriguchi’s last day as class 2-B’s teacher through 4 viewpoints, those of Student A, student B, student B’s mother, and a young girl in the class who refuses to tease the two murderers. Ms. Moriguchi’s replacement, Mr. Terada, a youthful optimist who seems to own a limitless supply of track suits, struggles to understand his students. Student A is mercilessly teased by his classmates. They have set up a point system that rewards punishing him. He does not seem to care, and the viewer eventually discovers why. Student B will not come to class at all, and holes himself up in his room, never bathing or grooming, and excessively cleaning anything he touches. Terada visits the boy’s home every week bringing him notes and cards from the class expressing their concerns. He doesn’t realize the notes are filled with word-play and puns about murder. The middle acts of the film are actually fairly weak, and drag in parts, which is disappointing in comparison to the strength of the opening segment. Ms. Moriguchi is absent, but her tendrils can be felt guiding the players’ actions. There is no mistake; she is the film’s Edmond Dantes. The conclusion is well worth the wait.
Confessions is visually beautiful. Scene and shot composition is top notch, and the bleak color pallet builds and preserves the mood wonderfully. There is no shaky cam or hectic cutting; Nakashima does not use cheap tricks to grip the audience. Long, steady shots highlight immaculate sets, and let the actors do the work. Slow motions effects are used often, but time is an important theme in the film; don’t confuse it with the recent wave of Zach Snyder-inspired overuse. The soundtrack is good. The music may just be the same Radiohead song (Last Flowers) played in different segments, but it works. The lyrics may not fit; Thom Yorke’s singing is indecipherable as usual, but musically the song suits the movie very well. Student A’s vision of time moving backwards at the end should be a music video.
Takako Matsu is very good as Moriguchi; unfortunately, the rest of the cast is not so strong in their roles. The children especially struggle, and tend to overact, and I mean strictly relatively, since overacting is the norm in Japan. Yoshino Kimura is especially mediocre as Student B’s mother though she did come off as crazy. I guess it runs in the family. Despite the acting, the characterization, especially of Morguchi, student A, and the girl who befriends him is very strong. The relationship between the two murderers is also very interesting, and seethes with irony and the tragedy it births.
The thematic content is strong, as well, and helps create a final product that is something more than the mere sum of its parts. The film is about guilt, blame, punishment, and above all, perception. There are a lot of bad people; who the good guys are remains obscure, and requires a subjective lens to decipher.
In the late 4th century, St. Augustine wrote about stealing pears from a tree as a youth in his autobiographical Confessions, to examine the motives of sinful acts. I think 告白 must be the 21st century version, free of religious zeal, and contaminated by a jaded, post-modern world view. Though the middle bulk of the film has significant flaws, the opening act and the conclusion make it all very worthwhile. I cannot recommend the movie enough. It is dark and it is heavy, but is something fairly different from the usual ejaculate Hollywood vomits out onto screens these days. Not new; these are old themes, but different. Kids can be very cruel, but so can adults, and they plan better.