Kazuya Shiraishi has, in recent years, made a name for himself as the director that has shown that audiences can still appreciate hard-boiled yakuza narratives. Yet, we should not merely focus on his duology The Blood Of Wolves (2018) and Last Of The Wolves (2021). He also knows how to craft romantic dramas, family narratives (One Night (2019)), roman pornos (Dawn Of The Felines (2017)), and biopics (Dare To Stop Us (2018)). Yet, it seems the call to explore crime and the darkness of humanity within his films cannot be silenced. His latest film, an adaptation of Riu Shushiki’s Shikei ni Itaru Yamai (2017), deals with the logic of a convicted serial killer.
Not long after the funeral service of Sachie Kakei has concluded, Masaya Kakei (Kenshi Okada) finds a letter addressed to him. The writer is none other than Yamato Haimura (Sadao Abe), a convicted serial killer. In the letter, he ask Masaya to meet him.
Masaya, once a loyal costumer of Haimura’s bakery, eventually decides to visit him. There, in the visiting cell, Haimura tells him that he did not commit the ninth murder he was convicted for. Why would he, so fixated on making obedient, honest, and hard-working 17 to 18 year old high-schoolers savour their pain through torture, strangle a woman in her twenties? Upon Haimura’s request, Masaya starts investigate the murder case.
Lesson in Murder is a mystery-thriller narrative that does not only offer a portrait of a serial killer, but also explores the impact family secrets can have the subject and the fundamental importance of being loved for the subject – and the subjective ravage the lack of love can cause.
The elegancy by which Kazuya Shiraishi unravels these themes is mainly function of the effective structure of the narrative – a structure marked by repetition of speech-fragments, a play with flashbacks, and reoccurring imagery. The fact that the narrative does not have that many unexpected twists does not diminish its effectivity in engaging the spectator. The way the narrative unfolds does not only unravel Haimura’s logic in a piecemeal manner but also gracefully traces the hold he is able to gain over others by charmingly manipulating their ego and exploiting their lingering insecurities.
Shiraishi’s elegance is also evident in the way he approaches the visualisation of gore. He pleases the spectator by creating a thoughtful balance between showing gore (e.g. slashed open legs and arms with bones sticking out, the act of strangling,…) and acts of sadistic torture (e.g. pulling out nails) and inviting the spectator, via suggestive imagery and unpleasant sounds, to imagine the bloody reality of the torturous and violent acts. The director utilizes such balanced approach to gore in the opening moments of the narrative to to confront the spectator with one aspect of Haimura’s nature: his need to ritualistically force the pain of existence onto his victims until this painful enjoyment annihilates them. It is only by such kind of violent forcing that Haimura, as subject, can attain some pleasure.
Another element that Shiraishi underlines in the opening of his narrative is the radical absence of emotion in Haimura’s speech and the rational and logical nature of his speech – he is, in a certain sense, cut off from mundane pleasure. His arrest, so he tell the judge, could easily have been avoided if he did not let self-deceit blind him. He explains that he lowered his guard because he was convinced that no youth values their existence, that contemporary youth, trapped within the repetitive empty pleasures of mundane life, are devoid of a desire to truly be alive. The trust he received from his victims became, in a certain twisted way, a sign that they had forsaken the desire to desire and a solicitation to be killed.
As Lesson in Murder unfolds, Shiraishi elegantly underlines the serial killer’s fixation on beautiful fingernails (Psycho-note 1 (spoiler)). It becomes evident that it is the elegance and the beauty of the fingernails of his victims and nothing else ensnares his violent lustful desire. Fragmentary explorations of Haimura’s past are also offered, revealing, for instance, the ease by which he, as charmful adolescent, seduced others into submission and into loving him. We slowly come to understand that he is a master at exploiting the dynamic of the compliment to please the other’s desire for recognition and satisfy his lingering frustration of not gaining enough recognition for his actions, not enough love for his obedience.
These revelations invite the spectator to question Haimura’s intentions. Why did he, out of the blue, contact Masaya? Why did he ask Masaya to carry out the investigation of the murder that he did not commit? Are their any other secrets that he wants Masaya to discover (Narra-note 1)? Either way, Masaya’s investigations into the murder of Kaoru Neza quickly reveals radical differences between the murders. The murder of Kaoru Nezu seemingly lacked any kind of premeditation – the killer let his emotions guide his violence. Instead of being groomed by Haimura to serve their sacrificial purpose, Nezu was being stalked from the shadows. Lastly, her nails were intact, implying that Haimura’s carnal desire was never imprisoned by her elegant fingers. Yet, is everything as clear-cut as it seems? What is the connection between Itsuki Kanayama (Takanori Iwata), an indecisive person with long unkept hair that Masaya encountered at the prison, and Kaoru Nezu’s murder? Should Masaya believe everything Haimura says? Can he avoid or escape the charms and encouragements of the glib murderer that sits before him?
While the narrative structure plays an important role in keeping the spectator engaged throughout the narrative, the structure would not have been so effective were it not for Sadao Abe’s exceptional performance. He does not merely evoke the superficiality of his kindness with his expressions and well-orchestrated white teeth smiles, but also in the rhythm that he gives to Haimura’s speech. This rhythm, which gives a subtle seductive flavour to his interactions, gives credibility to the persuasive power of the serial killer. Kenshi Okada’s performance brings enough range to the table to ensure that the finale of Lesson Of Murder delivers and pleases the spectator.
The composition of Lesson In Murder stands out due to its fluid, slow-moving dynamism and the its elegant rhythm – a rhythm enhanced, at times, by the understated musical accompaniment. Shiraishi also uses decorative elements in an effective way, e.g. the play with reflections (Narra-note 2, Cine-note 1). Their effectivity lies in the fact that these decorations are not simply utilized for heightening the visual pleasure of the composition, but also to allow certain fragments of truth reverberate more powerfully with the spectator and to heighten the dramatic nature of certain sequences.
The darkish and subdued colour and lightning design of Lesson in Murder creates an atmosphere that highlights that, beyond the empty chitter-chatter and conciliating laughter, lies relational conflict (e.g. a drunken bouts on the street, aggressive speech-acts, … etc.), the threat of a traumatic intrusion, of something that either hollows out or violently annihilates the speaking subject, and the presence of hidden but transgressive desires. Even in shots that are richer in warm colours, Shiraishi always signals the presence of a traumatic violent threat behind the harmonious atmosphere by allowing shadows and dim colours loom in the nooks and crannies of the shots (Lightning-note 1).
In some cases, Shiraishi plays with colours and contrasts to infuse some additional meaning into the visuals. By fluidly integrating more intense colours (e.g. the fire at the crematorium) and more distinct colour contrasts (e.g. blood decorating a white leaf-like object) into the visual fabric of Lesson Of Murder, he elegantly reveals that the traumatic event that haunts the subject and messes up his societal functioning is nothing other than the destructive impact of violence, physical as well as verbal, the lack of love, and death.
With Lesson Of Murder, Kazuya Shiraishi delivers a pleasant mystery-thriller narrative. What makes Shiraishi’s latest film an enjoyable experience is not only his elegance at the level of his composition, but also his thoughtful use of the narrative’s structure to deliver the exploration of the importance of love for the subject in a satisfying manner. Lesson in Murder might have been a simple portrait of a serial-killer in the hands of other lesser directors, but in Shiraishi’s talented hands the narrative has turned into a visual elegant examination of the desire that drives us all.
Psycho-note 1: The fixation of the fingernails is an important element within the logic of Haimura. It is only at the end of the narrative that its full import is revealed. The beauty of the fingernails called forth his desire to be loved for his mother as well as the trauma of never receiving the love he so desired. In this sense, the most important repetition that marks his murders is not so much his modus operandi, but the compulsion to kill his beloved mother over and over again.
Narra-note 1: The impact of the family secret on Masaya is determined by an identification. The revelation of the truth does not merely invite him the reinterpret his position within the family, but also to question the avoidance that marks his presence in the social field. His presence, a presence marked by unvocalized and unacted desires, shifts and transforms due to the sudden confrontation with the desire of the fatherly Other.
Narra-note 2: The visual element of reflection is used to denote Masaya’s identification with as well as his separation from Haimura.
Cine-note 1: Other decorations include slow-motion and the use of distorted perspectives.
Lightning-note 1: The subdued nature of the colours is not only evident in the way Shiraishi robs the sun of its penetrating brilliance but also in his reliance on greyish cloudy moments, dark night-time sequences, and shadows that herald the triumph of the evening.