Commercial director Tetsuya Nakashima’s film career truly took off with Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko, two potentially dreary art films that he made accessible for a broader audience through aggressively colorful visuals and over-the-top eccentric characters. Nakashima’s latest film Confessions, based on the novel by Kanae Minato, still employs the music video/commercial tricks that Nakashima picked up over the years, but it no longer tries to undermine its serious subject matter with explosions of colors.
Taking place in a merciless world where unspeakable acts can be committed with almost any excuse, Confessions eschews the use of color to distract from its dark subject matter. Nakashima instead goes with a plain, almost monochrome color palate that matches the horror of his dark suburban drama. This is a bold commercial filmmaking gamble that pays off handsomely for Nakashima and his team.
Besides refusing to let visuals drive his film again, Nakashima highlights his strengths as a scriptwriter, starting the film with a 30-minute monologue by Yuko (Takako Matsu), the teacher of a seemingly normal contemporary high school class. After announcing her resignation as a teacher, she begins to lay out the details surrounding her young daughter's death and her ultimate intentions. She knows two of her students murdered her daughter, and she has already begun her revenge.
This 30-minute opening is told with every music video trick in the book, but the writer-director keeps these elements under such assured control that nothing seems contrived. From the slow-motion to Matsu's cold and detached performance, Nakashima brilliantly lays out his details step-by-step to get the audience fully immersed in his hyper-realistic alternate reality. There's no mystery to be solved here; we know who committed the crime by the end of this 30-minute opening. Instead, Nakashima's script seems to purely focus on why Yuko deserves the justice that she is about to serve.
However, the script, like the novel, then changes perspective completely to the two perpetrators: a spoiled child with an over-protective mother (Yoshino Kimura) and an arrogant young scientist with a sick imagination to go along with a serious Oedipus Complex. Nakashima puts together the seemingly unrelated pieces of this puzzle to reveal an intriguing whydunit, exploring why the two problem children committed their crime, and the aftermath of them being exposed.
Most filmmakers would favor a more normal style of filmmaking after settling into the story, but Nakashima continues in his dynamic MTV style as the film goes to an even darker and more violent place than its opening suggests. Even though the film was a major commercial success in Japan, there’s no doubt that its “no one under 15” rating was well-justified. Confessions is intensely disturbing for a mainstream film. It's hard to imagine a normal cineplex audience being able to sit through Confessions without a director like Nakashima at the helm. In fact, it's hard to believe a major studio like Toho would dare to make the film without Nakashima's stylistic treatment of the material.
Parts of the film are brutal and violent (made even more disturbing since they involve teenagers), but these acts are mainly shown in a stylized fashion. Nakashima mostly avoids showing the violence explicitly, but he doesn’t shy away from presenting what’s needed to get the idea across. Despite the adult cast - namely Matsu, Kimura and Masaki Okada - getting all the awards attention, Yukido Nishii and Kaoru Fujiwaru are equally good as the disturbed murderers, as is Ai Hashimoto as a female classmate who sympathizes with one of the two killers.
Nakashima lightens the dark subject matter somewhat by making the film’s world appear to exist in a hyperreality. However, that storytelling choice does partially hurt the film’s social relevance, as the story becomes too far removed from our world to do much more than shock. Nevertheless, Confessions is an accomplished piece of contemporary filmmaking. After Matsuko, Nakashima seems to have perfected the ability to make soul-crushingly pessimistic material extremely watchable, achieving a balance between visually enticing an audience and retaining his material’s heavy impact.
Nakashima even ends the film with a wicked, darkly comedic twist that will likely please the cynics who truly want to see justice for Yuko. With Confessions, Nakashima has finally created a film that will elevate him far beyond his reputation as merely a pop director. At the same time, the film is a great ride for pop filmmaking fans that refuses to let them off easily, either. Nakashima has it both ways here; Confessions is the cinematic equivalent of a punch in the gut, but it also comes with an adrenaline shot.
(Kevin Ma, 2010)