The film sets itself up as a downward spiral to tragedy in the way that characters, both adult and teen, are introduced at a seemingly normal Japanese secondary school. You have the charming, engaging Hasumi (Hideaki Itô), an English teacher who seems like the type of teacher everyone likes. There’s the slightly suspect Shibahara (Takayuki Yamada), a gym teacher who seems too on-edge and moody to not have something to hide. The science teacher, Tsurii (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), is cautious and strange and gives the film its few moments of humor in the way in which he behaves, not realizing he comes across like a weirdo, despite his best intentions.
A teachers’ meeting at the start of the film opens the gates to the idea that these students, all charming and funny and innocent, may not be as innocent as they may seem. A cheating scheme is discussed and ways to combat it. Using a jamming signal is touched on, confiscating phones, etc. It is Hasumi that speaks most plainly about giving kids the benefit of the doubt in terms of not making them out-and-out distrust the adults. Soon after, Hasumi is made aware of a possible sexual harassment situation concerning a female student, Miya, and soon after learns of a sexual relationship between the male art teacher and a male student. Hasumi, however, isn’t the pillar of morality as it relates to both of these revelations, and his character goes from “moral center” to “creeping wolf around the hen house” in a hurry.
This all sort of washes together, cascading from one beautiful shot to another. The ugly, rotting backdrops of areas of the school and locations around town play beautifully against the rolling greys of the sky and the disaffected way in which the students deal with each other. You get this uncomfortable balance between apparent innocence and self-centered, festering negativity in these kids that, coupled with the previous revelations, puts you in a position of fearing the worst but not quite knowing where it will come from. This is the genius of this film because one might be expecting a breakdown a la Virgin Suicides or some kind of plot hatched to pit students against teachers in a violent battle for what non-teens might consider absurd instead.
With all of this beautiful direction and solid acting and uneasy setup, it is frustrating and tiring that the second half of the film essentially becomes a splattery grind for nonsensical reasons. The children are in the school overnight prepping for (I believe) a carnival which provides the perfect opportunity to eliminate them en masse for their misdeeds and wasted youth. If that makes little sense in the larger construct of a morality lesson, then I guess you could surmise that was the point: satire by way of disgusting mass murder under the pretense of executing a lesson about bad behavior. Again, this really doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense and I suspect that (to a point) that is part of the point. If the person or persons dolling out the punishment are themselves completely devoid of a reliable narrative of honestly and morality, then what does it all mean in the first place?
I get the sense that, for some, the relentless (and technically impressive) mowing down of these children will serve as a graphic example of why you should encourage good citizenship in developing children. However, I don’t think the film gets to make that claim, seeing as the vast majority of these kids (from what we’re shown anyway) are more or less okay people. They are kids, they make bad choices and good ones and are learning and growing. Only a sociopath with no empathy or understanding of life in flux couldn’t see that.
And maybe THAT is the point. But either way, the film doesn’t make that decision in any reliable way so what you’re left with is a disgusting, bloody aftermath with no place to impart a larger meaning one way or the other. Is it just a character study about an ugly, cruel person and faceless, meaningless victims? Is there a larger message about the judgement of youth and the disconnect between reality and fantasy? Is it a dark comedy about who we put our trust into? All of those could be potentially correct answers if the film (even for all its technical merits) was a reliable source from which to draw. Instead? It alienates much more than it engages and loses its ability to make much of a statement about anything, whatever that anything might have been.