I think people largely enjoy films wholly for their narratives; as in, the principle of there even being a narrative. Although events may be disjointed and crucial moments tend to manifest later rather than sooner, the story still unfolds chronologically. Personae embody clear beginnings and endings despite whatever happens between, and we have some grasp of meaning or lack thereof which is something that we lack in real time. Because our lives are ultimately nonlinear albeit spatial or temporal. The prevalence of disparities or institutions incline us not to what we deserve, but to whatever awaits. I’ve known many people who see life as a precipitous, an ongoing avenue that can be climbed like a mountain whose inevitable lows are justified by heights which accord to joyous apex. Lately, I find myself thinking life is more of a descent: less of a mountain climb than a fall down a rabbit hole, more of a plunge than a summit.
Nothing like the movies.
Narrative pretense is meant to suspend our disbelief which is usually accomplished by some resonant line or likeness. This obviously goes well beyond the movies in how we’ve literally been cultivated from infancy not only oblige, but perform particular social norms and mores. Performativity has been definitive in growth and learning. From day one, we’re groomed through positive and negative reinforcement. We’re told to act or think in certain ways so that we may optimize our odds of success or acceptance. Most importantly, we’re alienated if we fail to deliver the script.
This was driven home in each and every scene in Lesson of the Evil. Pretenses are the means through which its lead—the handsome, charismatic Seiji Hasumi; played by Hideaki Itô—accrues favour in social capital. His allure is fruitlessly dissected through pensive exchanges and musings from secondary characters wherefore his charms become inexplicably uncanny, but never cease to enthrall. Yet Hasumi thrives as much from his looks as his strong albeit sociopathic grasp of social contracts. He knows that the mechanisms involved respectability are grounded in reciprocity: the determinant of a star is applause, hence they must simultaneously gauge and appease their audience; and although the audience excises the power of their patronage, they are resigned because they are beholden to the spectacles before them. The transactions underlain in each exchange—of look, touch, dialogue—incline characters to distrust their instincts. Which is why their prolonged albeit valid suspicions never materialize.
Nobuyasu Kita [director of photography] also effects the magnitude of social contracts as well as their innately contradictory nature through chilly colour grading and volley of deep space. The indistinction between genuity and pretension is thematic to many films for which Kita as served as cinematographer. He relates the tenacity and indecision of the ties that bind through ever-shifting rack focuses, and through profuse overhead and low angles which serve to alienate as much they put things in perspective.
Kita also reinforces each characters’ positionality as most instances of match on action are low angle whereas Hasumi is primarily shot from eye level. This conveys how principle and reciprocity are inconsequential as charisma undermines the infrastructure of social contracts. People like Hasumi are beheld more than they are upheld because they feign relativity. In supplanting terms of engagement with terms of endearment, disparities and boundaries are things they can easily dissuade or neutralize. Which is kind of reminiscent of the conglomerate apparatus—celebrities, elites en vogue—whose simulations of amity or solidarity sustain fans and consumers. The sight of Hasumi straight on accentuates the uncanny albeit immaculate extent of this deception: how everyone, including the audience, are duped by his artifice of parity; and how we are inclined to uncritically cede, devoid of facts and instincts.
Another noticeable aspect in the cinematography is the lack of montage. The only exception is an instance of cross-cutting wherein Hasumi is nonplussed by a pair of ominous crows, then revels in mortally wounding one of them. The pair are understood to be Norse mythological incarnates of thought [Huginn] and memory [Muninn], key to Hasumi’s fabled defense of absolution. This likeness eclipses subsequent character exchanges, and that was the only aspect of the film that I found disappointing. Unconsciously, these crows may serve as metaphors for thought and memory: looming, inconspicuous, and almighty albeit precarious. Everyone in Lesson of the Evil exhibits this, including Hasumi. Appearances, intents, and purposes falter because of harrowing memories, points of origin, and the inability to wholly suspend their disbeliefs. Which also speaks to how social contracts are largely operant upon efforts to contrive thought and memory to be selective.
For me, this resonated on another level in terms of politics and scholarship: the conscious choices I make to not only secure, but reclaim my personal time and space; and it is no coincidence that that primarily entails disengagement. We are constantly told that establishing and respecting boundaries are the means to health, transparency, and productivity. At the same time, we are also told that maturity, efficacy, and compromise require that our boundaries be fluid, amenable to negotiation. And, nobody articulates that bullshit quite like the idealists I encounter whom aspire to be educators or judiciaries. These people are typically prone to tangents and false equivalences, assuming sanctimonious platitudes. Their lack of self-awareness sees them opine as if they were to adjudicate; and they are unable and unwilling to see that the very laws which govern us—to which they purport their loyalties—were created, gatekept, and circumvented by imperialist hegemonic powers.
We like to think that these people will be duly dealt with; that their superiors will inevitably conclude that they are inimical or otherwise unremarkable; that their penchants or privileges will eventually count for little since they only count for so much; that cosmic justice or karma will prevail and they just won’t last. Unfortunately, that is hardly the case. These people tend to fall upward. Institutions are rife with them, and they are adulated by those likewise or none-the-wiser.
Which is why our own likeness in Hasumi makes Lesson of the Evil all the more unnerving. The only difference between him and the majority is that he assumes a particularly callous and destructive stance without conscience; whereas others begrudgingly yield, weighing the pros and cons of pretension or conformity, and salvage what pride they can in conclusion. People like Hasumi embody the social contracts which force us to maintain the guise of civility. Not because of their success or disposition, but because of how they [claimers] the narrative as a means to sublimate their contempt. Their stories are principled on the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword and manifest in the realization that those who wield the sword incline those who hold the pen. Lesson of the Evil shows this as its other characters relinquish their own swords on principle and assume Hasumi has done the same, only to discover that he is innately driven to weaponize any means to an end.
UPDATE – 11/27/2020 – This piece was actually shared on the Takashi Miike Facebook page ツ