Thursday, March 19, 2015

Well-Schooled in Murder

「Oh, you were to enter Todai? Sorry, you are going to die.」
『悪の教典 - Lesson of the Evil』

I love Japanese bunko pockets, but they don't really work for novels with a really high page count. I have some pockets that go to around nine-hundred pages (Nikaidou Reito's Akuryou no Yakata and Shimada Souji's Atopos for example), but these are quite difficult to handle. More often, novels are split in multiple (normal-sized) volumes, but that is usually a more costly investment for the reader, as they have to buy two or more books. On the other hand, you can easily drop out after the first volume; I have often seen that people decide to drop a book split in multiple volumes after the first. As a reader, I am still not sure what is best. But that's enough for today's non-sequitur introduction...

Hasumi Seiji appears to be the perfect high school teacher. Not only do his students like his enthusiastic way of educating the English language, but as a homeroom teacher Hasumi has also shown to have a great eye for the 'feel' of his class, solving the various problems his pupils cope with. Hasumi is also well-respected by the rest of the school staff, because of his commitment to the cause and the image of the school. From bullying to 'monster parents' (helicopter parents) and sexual harassment from staff, Hasumi manages to deal with every obstacle that appears on his way of becoming the best teacher of the best class. Hasumi also happens to be a complete psychopath though and not seldom does his idea of dealing with a problem involve rather violent and deadly solutions. And as the academic year progresses, more and more people start to suspect there is more behind the perfect facade of Hasumi in Kishi Yuusuke's Aku no Kyouten, which also bears the English title Lesson of the Evil.

Lesson of the Evil was originally serialized between 2008 - 2010 and won the first Yamada Fuutarou Prize, first place in both the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! and Weekly Bunshun Mystery Best rankings and was nominated for a heap of other prizes like the Naoki Prize. I first saw the title in the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! list, but had rather forgotten about it until I attended a lecture of writer Kishi Yuusuke in 2012 at Kyoto University (on the role of violence in the entertainment sector), in which he mentioned this book several times and showed the trailer of the film adaptation by Miike Takashi that released the same year (the movie is also released outside Japan with the grammatically more sensible title Lesson of Evil). As a work of entertainment fiction, this is a pretty big title (there's even a comic version!).

But the first thing I have to say before anything else is: WHY IS THIS CONSIDERED A MYSTERY NOVEL BY SOME? How the heck did this won first place in not one, but two mystery novel rankings?! Setting aside the question of whether Lesson of the Evil is a good read or not: this is not a mystery novel. It's a horror novel. In the broad sense of the word, you can call it a crime novel. But not a mystery novel. The fact Lesson of the Evil won a mystery award is a mystery though. I had suspected something like that having read the description of the book in the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! guidebook and the film was definitely meant to be bloody horror, but somewhere that it would turn out to be a mystery novel (like Abiko Takemaru's Satsuriku ni Itaru Yamai). It didn't. I think most sources refer to Lesson of the Evil as horror, which is correct, but I just can't understand multiple juries could have considered this the best mystery novel released in 2010!

Aaaaanyway. But as I have read the book and it's not completely off-topic here, still the review. The pocket version of Lesson of the Evil is split in two volumes and I quite liked the first one. The first chapter starts out as any typical school drama. Hasumi learns that one of his students is being sexually harrassed by one of his fellow teachers and helps the victim, while on the other hand manages to convince another hardheaded teacher to apologize to a student he had hit. Standard stuff here. But a third problem involves Hasumi getting rid of some crows that bother him at home and the method employed is the first hint you get that Hasumi might not be as normal as he appears to be. As the story continues, you'll see Hasumi taking more and more extreme measures to wipe out any problem in his way, from blackmailing a fellow teacher to setting things up so a problem child gets himself expelled. This first half is easily the best part of the novel, as the gap between Hasumi's perfect appearance and his ruthless behaviour is quite creepy. The build-up in the first chapter to make you feel uneasy is great and the way the story develops to the more extreme second half is effective.

The second half of the book however is mostly a splatter-horror story, when some of Hasumi's pupils start to suspect there's more behind their homeroom teacher than just his smile, and Hasumi decides to kill his entire class during a school festival, put the blame on someone else and start anew (and this kinda sounds like a big spoiler, but considering this is also written on the back cover description and the film trailer is all about this particular part...).  This part has some similarities with Battle Royale, with kids trying to defend themselves from a shotgun-carrying assaillant,all  locked up in one area (and the bloody bloodiness of the bloodshedding). For those who like over-the-top violence, you can find plenty of that here, and in the pool of blood that drips out of the pages.

Did I like the book? Well, reasonably. Like I said, I thought the first half was good, especially if one sees it as a parody/subversion of 'traditional' school drama like Great Teacher Onizuka, where an unconventional teacher helps students and fellow teachers alike. If one considers the place of the educational system and teachers in society as pillars (especially Japanese society) and the school as a safe haven for minors, one has to admit that Lesson of the Evil plays a lot with that. A lot of 'stereotypical' and real social problems fly by: from grand-scale cheating, 'monster parents', corporal punishments, sexual harassement to indecent teacher-student relations, but the way Hasumi deals with them is not as typical. By the way, this school has way too much serious problems, even without Hasumi!

I was less a fan of the second half. Not because I dislike the blood, but that massacre takes just too many pages. It just goes on and on and on and whereas the first half had a good sense of speed because Hasumi was multitasking on several schemes across the school, the second half is just straight splatter horror.

Lesson of the Evil is the first time I read horror by Kishi Yuusuke, by the way. Is it a mystery? Noho, absolutely no. Is it entertaining? Well, yeah. As a psycho-horror novel, it's okay and I personally liked the way the story resembles a standard school drama in form (including the social problems), but handles it in a very warped way. If what I've said sounds alluring, or if you think the film trailer looks cool, take a look. For those who want a real mystery, try Kishi's Security Consultant Enomoto Kei locked room mystery novels (also known as the Kagi ga Kakatta Heya series).

Original Japanese title(s): 貴志祐介 『悪の教典』


  1. I would think from your description that this book is a crime novel, and that the definition of the mystery novel is broad enough to encompass the crime novel. The teacher is plainly a criminal and is performing criminal acts. When I go down to the book store and look in the mystery section, there are plenty of books like this in it. What the book is not is that it is not a detective novel.

    1. In my mind at least, the mystery novel is closer to the detective novel and a mystery novel does not have to be a crime novel (or vice versa). At least, I can think of enough mystery titles that don't even contain a hint of crime (I'm reading one now), and enough crime novels don't contain any mystery.

      I'd say that for "Lesson of the Evil", the first volume can be considered a crime novel, or even a mystery novel (in a broad sense), but by the last volume, it's closer to horror-action, like "Battle Royale". But I still find it hard to believe this was considered the best /mystery/ novel of the year in Japan in several rankings...

  2. Quick question, sine we're on the subject of Kishi: Have you read Ao no Honoo and if so, could you share any thoughts? What about the movie?

    1. I know it's considered one of his best known works, but I haven't read/seen it yet.