It did huge business at the box office and it was Japan's submission for the Oscars for that year's Best Foreign Language Film. If you're a mother, it's a horror movie.
It's based on a novel by housewife-turned-novelist Kanae Minato and the movie was written and directed by Tetsuya Nakashima, the director of Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko. The latter in particular still mesmerises me today. Imagine the most horrific, traumatic story, but told light-heartedly with singalong music numbers, tartrazine colours and Disney tweety birds. That's Memories of Matsuko. Now imagine Nakashima dropping the flippancy and just being nasty. That's this film.
We begin with a teacher (Takako Matsu, an award-winning actress from a famous kabuki family) talking to her rowdy class for half an hour. That's half an hour's screen time. It's also the pre-credits sequence. It's not quite the class from hell, but it's not far away. They don't pay much attention to their teacher and don't bother shutting up when she's speaking, or even in some cases don't bother sitting down. Matsu explains that she's quitting as their teacher. She's sorry that she might perhaps, at times, have seemed cold towards them. She tells them a little about herself, such as the fact that she's a single mother because the father of her child has since been diagnosed as HIV-positive. Her daughter is four years old... although technically that sentence should be in the past tense, because recently she was murdered by two children in Matsu's class. Matsu even knows who they are. They've told her that they did it.
Among other things, you see, this story is about killer children. In America, these loners tend to get an automatic weapon and one day shoot a dozen of their classmates. Japan doesn't have guns, but that just means that its apparently motiveless underage nihilists have to use other weapons instead. It'll have incidents like the Sasebo slashing, in which an eleven-year-old schoolgirl slit her friend's throat and arms with a knife.
As Matsu explains here, Japan's Juvenile Law of 1947 means that children can't be convicted in a criminal court of law. She thinks this is unsatisfactory, so she's come up with one or two ideas for taking revenge in her own way. She tells her class about the first one, which she's already put into operation, then walks out of the ensuing chaos.
What comes next is a character examination, addressing both what exactly happened and what's going to happen next. Student A thinks he's a genius and maintains a "Genius Professor's Research Website" on which he posts pictures of the animals he's tortured to death. What's really going on in his head, though, is both pathetic and understandable. He has mother issues.
Student B, on the other hand, is a problem child and not very intelligent. He freaks out and stops going to school, for which his doting mother blames Matsu. How dare some horrid teacher bully her kind, innocent darling? She loves him. She doesn't care what anyone says he's done. Yup, you guessed it. More mother issues. This film is founded on three mother-child relationships, each of which has its own way of making your blood run cold.
It's about all kinds of things. People keep saying they understand each other. Sometimes they do, all too horribly well, and sometimes they're so far away from the truth that it's blackly funny. There's one point where Nakashima's mischievous side shows through, when the bloody horror of Student B gets sent up with deliberately inappropriate incidental music. (The film's musical choices are always full-blooded, though.) We also see the horror of children in general, with "punish-him points" and the class's bullying with mobile phones and more. A mobile phone, in this film, is a deadly weapon.
The acting is superb, especially considering that these are child actors. You forget that they're actors. You just think that they're the characters, which is saying a lot considering how disturbing the film gets.
It's a savage film, with an emotionally brutal ending. I love the way Nakashima simply lets go of reality and lets time wind back in a way you'd never get with a more literalist director. (Don't worry, it's not time travel. It's just taking one last look at a certain character.) However just as important, I think, is the way it's getting inside these children's mindsets and showing us what reality looks like on the other side of the mirror. What makes Student A happy. The questions they ask. "Is human life really such a big deal?" "Of course the mass media will love it." Whether or not Matsu's thirst for revenge is functionally different from the acts of these desperate children.
Many Japanese films are wonderful, if you're into that kind of thing. Some, though, are good enough to annihilate an audience who don't normally know or care two hoots about foreign films. This is in the latter category.