Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?
Catch phrase “just kidding” to the contrary, Confessions/Kokuhaku is anything but. Improbabilities and sunsets, bubbles, K-I-L-L-E-R bulletin boards, reverse-film/time pieces and text messaging are distractions, but writer (from a best-selling Kanae Minato novel) and director Tetsuya Nakashima’s newest is a most unsettling tale of mother love and abandonment, loneliness and revenge. From an unruly seventh/eighth-grade classroom to bubblegum accompaniment, it burrows through voiceover “confessions” as, using others and being used, the three principals goad themselves and others into physical and emotional violence.
Given Japanese tastes and the nihilistic darkness of this one, it has been a surprise that Confessions overtook Alice in Wonderland as the country’s box-office leader on its release three weeks ago. U.S. viewers can now judge on their own on Opening Night of the fourth Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema, part of that Japan Society co-presentation as Centerpiece of Subway Cinema’s New York Asian Film Festival (adding Lincoln Center to its venues).
It is difficult to keep straight the thirteen-year-olds selected from a thousand auditioned newcomers. In jackets and ties or short pleated skirts, the nearly three dozen in Miss Yuko Moriguchi’s junior high class are inattentive adolescent-nasty. In the emotionless monotone she adopts throughout except for late bursts of triumph, television actress Takako Matsu smilingly informs her cheering pupils that, though young, she is retiring, a bad teacher who devoted her all to single motherhood.
Renowned Dr. Sakuramiya had canceled their wedding on discovering his HIV/AIDS condition. Pregnant, she shared daughter Manami with him until his death and then relied on day care until the four-year-old’s drowning death in the school pool, ruled an accident by police. Convinced that the child was murdered, and by two of the students present, she stuns them with the revelation that her dead fiancé’s tainted blood was injected into the lunch milk cartons of the guilty “Student A and Student B.”
An ironic motif is that “life is precious,” and she recommends that the unidentified killers reflect on this during the eight-to-ten years left to them.
Her replacement is idealistic “Werther,” whom the students disrespect even more on account of his naïveté and moralistic lecturing. Strange straight Yuko Mizuki attaches herself to him, however, especially during his unwelcome attempted visits to problem “my gentle Naoki,” obsessively pampered by his mother (Yoshino Kimura) and, unwashed, smelly, and absent from school, perhaps the Student B who “had no homicidal inclinations but did commit murder,” if only to upset his arrogant partner-in-crime’s plans.
Confusing but rewarding, much of this is not clarified until later confessions take over. Paralleling B is aloof suspect A, Shuya Watanabe, a self-proclaimed boy genius physically and mentally abused by the certified brilliant mother who abandoned him and whose whereabouts and attentions he desperately seeks. His shock-producing anti-theft purse wins a science prize but, overshadowed by the Lunacy Girl’s patri- and matricide, fails to attract media or maternal notice.
Shuya must, therefore, make more spectacular plans.
All this is revealed late, through the admissions of characters who have each his/her own prejudices, purposes, limitations. But this is not Rashomon consideration of truth and subjectivity, and so the unlikely and the unbelievable are made to fit together after, and in spite of, all. Nakashima’s skill is to bring it together and draw us in. Shuya is joined by understanding Kitabara and his blood test comes back negative, while Naoki believes himself positively infected and reacts accordingly to save and to ruin.
Whatever its truth, of murder or revenge, Confessions crafts a chilling hundred-three minutes for those who stay, ignore the unfortunate distractions, sort things out and accept the unusual story-telling process.
(Released by Third Window Films; not rated by MPAA.)