Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) works as a teacher in an unruly Secondary school. Her class are particularly disruptive, even when she tells them of a fellow teacher who has just weeks left to live, and how this news has inspired her to finish working there at the end of term.
Then Moriguchi begins to tell the class about her love for her daughter Manami. Suddenly her tale, including how the father was infected with HIV but she and Manami managed to avoid contracting it, has the class hooked.
The chatter in the classroom drops to silence as their teacher explains of how Manami’s body was found in a nearby swimming pool, in an event that the police ruled as "accidental death". But, Moriguchi explains, "she was killed ... by students in this class".
Moriguchi continues her story, with the class now in her hands. Flash-backs illustrate how she struggled to cope with her daughter’s death, and how a private funeral was held so her father – now with AIDS, and revealed as being the fellow teacher with weeks to live – could grieve for the child he never held.
Despite her evident pain, Moriguchi refuses to reveal the identity of Manami’s two killers to the class. Instead, she proceeds with the tale of how she began looking further into her daughter’s death and piece together what had actually happened.
The flash-backs continue to unfold alongside the present-tense drama, providing a tension that offers more than a couple of neat twists and alternating perspectives from others’ confessions along the way. And even when the identity of the boys concerned is made apparent – as is Moriguchi’s cruel, arguably predictable revenge – there is much more still to come from this story. Until its disappointing final throes.
A melancholic piano leads a sombre score through the film’s earlier stages, adding weight where required to some beautifully composed scenes (Radiohead also contribute a track midway through the film). Even if it had proffered nothing else, CONFESSIONS proves to be an aesthetically sublime proposition from the off.
But with Matsu cannily cast for her astute mix of vulnerability and steeliness, the emotive subject matter is also punched home with genuine force. From the first few minutes onwards, director Tetsuya Nakashima’s script (adapted from Kanae Minato’s novel) poses potent questions such as how much protection a parent can offer their child once they’ve began school, and how the law protects minors. The most disturbing question proffered is how and why some children make that transition from innocence to violent, unconscionable teenagers.
Indeed, aside from the manipulative flash-backs to happier times, and solemn confessions of Moriguchi, the film’s first half is rife with similar rhetorical questions that linger long after the more dynamic second half is over. There is a lot of food for thought herein.
So some may find it unfortunate that the film fails to provide answers. Instead it shifts several gears for its third act and becomes a standard revenge exploitationer, albeit a great-looking and highly proficient one at that. The formulaic violence of the climactic third does its best to overshadow the more contemplative first hour ... but, in the long term, it is that sense of loss and hunger for some sense of reasoning that will stay with the viewer.
Had Nakashima played the film along these lines from beginning to end, it’s difficult to say whether the end result would’ve been disappointingly anticlimactic. However, I’m guessing CONFESSIONS could have been a classic of understated psychological torment.
As it stands, the film is uneven and slightly depressing. It’s also extremely well-shot, superbly acted and – once the typically intelligent Japanese build-up is dispersed with – delivers Hollywood-type thrills for those in need of an escalation. It could be argued that it’s more cathartic for the viewer this way, certainly.
Regardless of how I may have preferred the film to unfurl, there’s no denying that it’s a powerful and distressing piece of cinema. Small wonder then that it won the awards for Best Film and Best Director at the 34th Japan Academy Prize (their version of the Oscars). It also won their award for Best Screenplay which, for the most part, was another agreeable decision.
The 2-disc DVD from Third Window is a good one.
Disc one is home to the film. It’s presented uncut (with a 15 rating) in anamorphic 1.78:1. It looks good in a sharp, detailed transfer which exhibits intentionally drab colour schemes. Don’t expect images that pop off the screen with colour and vibrancy, because CONFESSIONS wasn’t shot that way. Despite its beauty, it’s an icily cold viewing experience at times – and the transfer upholds this well.
Audio-wise, the original Japanese soundtrack is presented in 2.0 and 5.1 options. The latter is a great proposition, especially when sound design really comes to the fore when the film accelerates in its second half. Optional English subtitles are easy to read and generally decent despite the occasional error.
The first disc opens with an animated main menu page, and contains an animated scene-selection menu allowing access to the film via 16 chapters.
Disc two is where you’ll find the extra features.
The best of these by far is a 70-minute ‘making of’ documentary entitled ‘Final Confessions’. This offers an excellent insight into the film’s production, taking in all principal players on both sides of the camera along the way. There is a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage to be enjoyed, and the interspersed interviews with cast and crew begin to engage more than the usual B-Roll fluff as the documentary progresses.
‘Real Confessions’ is 17 minutes of the younger cast members speaking further about the film’s storyline and themes. It’s not as enlightening but is worthy of a watch regardless.
The film’s original trailer is typically stylish and morose, clocking in at 1 minute and 42 seconds in length. 2 minutes of TV spots are less successful.
All of the above come with Japanese 2.0 audio and English subtitles.
Finally we get the usual plethora of trailers for other Third Window titles: COLD FISH, MEMORIES OF MATSUKO, CONFESSIONS OF A DOG, FISH STORY, KAKERA, KAMIKAZE GIRLS, FINE TOTALLY FINE, LALA PIPO, LOVE EXPOSURE, INSTANT SWAMP and TURTLES ARE SURPRISINGLY FAST SWIMMERS.
CONFESSIONS is, on the one hand, beautiful and haunting. But it’s equally manipulative and rather pedestrian in the exploitation route it finally chooses to follow. Consequently it feels slightly uneven and bordering on being schizophrenic. While this may stop it from achieving true greatness, it’s still a very involving film (not to mention painfully grim, though never gory) and Third Window have given it a good DVD treatment for its UK release.
Also available on blu-ray.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Third Window Films|
|Region 2 - PAL|
|see main review|