In the aftermath of his grandmother’s passing, troubled student Masaya Kakei (Kenshi Okada) feels lost. A loner, Masaya feels he failed his parents by not securing a position at a prestigious college.
One day, he receives a letter from his old friend Yamamato Haimura (Sadeo Abe) looking to reunite. Yamamato was the kindly owner of a nearby bakery Masaya as a child would frequent. Yamamato is also a confessed serial killer on death row who kidnapped, tortured, and killed two dozen teenage boys and girls.
Only tried and convicted of 9, Yamamato drops a bombshell on Masaya. He now claims his supposed final victim was actually killed by another. Betting on their former friendship Yamamato asks Masaya to review this murder and find the true culprit. Masaya reluctantly agrees and over the course of his investigation will discover much more than he bargained for.
Selected for Australia’s 2022 Japanese Film Festival, Lesson In Murder (死刑にいたる病; Shikei ni Itaru Yamai) is a horror detective story in the same vein as Silence of the Lambs. What I found most interesting about its premise was how unconventional it all was. Far from being an official police investigation, Masaya is just a lowly student himself. Plus, even if what Yamamato is saying is true he is still a confessed killer of 23 teenagers.
It is the bond between Masaya and Yamamato which fuels this otherwise futile inquiry. You would think years back Masaya would have been at risk, but he never was. For one at 15 he didn’t fit Yamamato’s crosshairs (17 and 18-year-olds). But also, Yamamato genuinely cared for little ‘Ma-kun‘. Of course, this reconnecting leads to Masaya beginning to discover terrible things about himself and what he is capable of. The two leads have amazing chemistry and play off each other incredibly well. While their interactions (besides flashbacks) are separated via glass partition, this doesn’t hold anything back.
Director Kazuya Shiraishi has used a simple yet extremely effective technique. In all of their interactions, the reflection of one actor on the divider overlays the other. Firstly, this allows the two actors to always be on screen together in every shot. But more than that, it hints at their respective influence on each other. There is some part of the innocent Masaya deep down in killer Yamamato and vice versa.
Sadeo Abe’s performance is as multifaceted as it is brilliant. As the friendly neighbourhood baker, you can see exactly how he could draw anybody in with his crocodile smile. He gives children’s book recommendations to prison guards, his former neighbours talk of wanting to help him escape, all of it is believable because of the warmth Abe exudes when he wants to. But that charm can disappear entirely as he becomes a terrifying blank slate with nothing but malice in his eyes.
The violence and torture scenes in this movie are particularly disturbing. It is quite the opposite of the schlocky movies which invite the audience to revel in the bloodshed. The flashback of one victim crawling away hacked and mutilated was one of the most brutal things I’ve ever seen.
The story does falter a little in its credibility, however. While the two leads’ bonds are established, the idea of Yamamato’s lawyer condoning Masaya‘s audit is implausible. Let alone sharing confidential documents and crime scene photos with the go-ahead to interview witnesses. Some of the twists don’t quite pack the punch the filmmakers are after either. They can be a predictable at times or at other times just downright silly.
Still, in turning the ‘Hannibal Lecter assisting an investigation’ cliché on its head, Lesson In Murder is an extremely fascinating movie. With the performances of Okada and Abe being the film’s greatest strength, I was thrilled when they were on screen together. It is easy to see why Lesson In Murder was selected as an entry in this year’s Japanese Film Festival.
The 2022 Japanese Film Festival is on from November through to December and is screening Lesson In Murder in Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney.
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