Confessions (Kokuhaku Japan 2010)

Matsu Takako as middle school teacher Moriguchi Yuko

This film is released by Third Window Films in the UK. I saw it in Bradford on a digital print but the release date does not show up in the UK Film Council box office charts. I suspect that the 2K print is only there to create a profile for the DVD release. That’s a shame because this is a film with a distinctive aesthetic that demands to be seen on a big screen. The film is however wandering round the UK with single showings in various cinemas. Check the Third Window ‘Events’ listings here. It won several prizes at Asian festivals and was the official Japanese entry for the foreign language Oscar this year – a pity it didn’t get to the final shortlist, I think.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

The ‘confessions’ of the title refer to the four parts of the film each devoted to a witness statement about the part played in the drama by each of the central characters. The first ‘confession’ provides the outline story. It comes from Moriguchi Yuko who is a teacher in a middle school in Japan teaching 7th Grade (13 year-olds?). She has a mixed gender class of typical students who don’t pay attention. She calmly announces that she is giving up teaching and she invokes the name of a well-known teaching guru – who was once her lover. She tells the class that a terrible crime has been committed. She knows who is responsible but instead of naming the two culprits who are in her class she describes them in a way which makes their identity clear. Then she announces that she has tricked them and that they will soon learn their fate. All hell breaks out.

In the other three confessions, the two culprits and a third class member who becomes implicated in the investigation of the crime have their say before a final sequence sets out the dénouement.


I realised after the screening that I knew about the director, Nakashima Tetsuya, who was responsible for Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko. I’ve seen part of the former and Fai reported on the latter here. (Both films have been shown on Film 4 in the UK.) Fai points out that Nakashima is a former advertising director and I realise that one aspect of Confessions – the immaculate set design and cinematography – reminded me of Roy Andersson, another director who used advertising films as a way of honing a distinctive aesthetic.

Nakashima’s style (which involves colour filters and lots of slow motion here with an incessant background of pop music mixed fairly low down – and which includes a particularly whiney Radiohead track, ‘Last Flowers to Hospital’) is mixed with elements from various Japanese horror genre repertoires. The story is adapted from a best-selling novel by Minato Kanae and I recognised aspects of the mindset of the teen characters from Japanese novels I’ve read over the last few years. The obvious genre references are to Battle Royale and Nakata Hideo movies such as Dark Water and high school horror including episodes from the Grudge. (I was also reminded in some scenes of the Korean series of Whispering Corridors movies.) Confessions is a classic revenge story, so beloved of Japanese drama, but it also picks up on two of the major social issues in Japan – the pressures of a rigid ‘hothouse’ school system and the prejudice against divorce and single parents. Three of the central characters are involved in close relationships between mother and child. The third social issue is bullying in school, so this is a horror film with a brain.

Ai Hashimoto as the girl who befriends a killer

This is certainly a very well-made film. For me it teeters on the line between an arty genre movie and pretentious tosh. I’m inclined towards the former. The film is very much the kind of drama I like with good performances all round, including a very self-assured young woman, Ai Hashimoto, a young teen model who plays the crucial role of the student who befriends one of the killers. On the other hand, there is too much blood and too much CGI for my taste and the music – described in Mark Kermode’s Observer Review of the DVD as ‘super hip’ – was also not to my taste. But these are possibly three pluses for younger audiences. I’d certainly recommend the film.

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