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There’s an almost gleeful perversity at the heart of Kazuya Shiraishi’s Lesson in Murder; for all it’s serial killer trappings and feints at being a mystery, when you get right down to it, the film is basically a coming of age story.

A decidedly deranged and gruesome one, yes. But a coming of age story nonetheless.

Sheepish, recessive law student Masaya (Kenshi Okada) returns to his village to attend the funeral of his grandmother, and from the start, something seems… off… about him. Not dangerously so, but in his hesitation, his awkwardness, the half beat it takes him to acknowledge or respond to anyone who speaks to him directly… he is clearly a troubled soul. And from the way he shrinks from his aloof, openly hostile father, it’s not difficult to trace the source.

Masaya’s journey towards something like self-actualization comes when he receives a letter from Yamato (Sadao Abe), who ran the village bakery. Masaya has fond memories of the bakery as a place of refuge, the amiable, kindly Yamato proving a more nurturing caretaker than his own father. And with the warmth he shows towards others, it makes sense that he was a much-loved and valued member of the community.

That is, until he was arrested for the murder of 24 young students and sentenced to death.

Unfailingly polite and good natured even as he shows absolutely no remorse whatsoever, Yamato freely admits to 23 of the crimes, but insists that one of them (the ninth victim, to be precise) was not his doing. Insisting that there is still a murderer running free, Yamato beseeches Masaya to find the real killer and see that true justice gets done.

And how could you say no to this face:

Hired in a temporary position by the law firm representing Yamato, Masaya delves into the investigation in search of the truth, driven by a morbid curiosity he barely seems able to comprehend, and which, inevitably, will uncover secrets

There’s a curious sense of restraint at play in Lesson In Murder. Let’s be clear, the film has it’s moments of truly repellent gore (hope you’re okay with forced fingernail removal!), but it’s equally notable what we don’t see: death itself. Brief moments of torture are on display and there is a very gruesome flashback to the final moments of that ninth victim. But we never see actually anyone murdered onscreen. Shiraishi does just enough to make crystal clear the horrific nature of the crimes, and doesn’t linger a moment more than absolutely necessary.

More than that, the film refuses to play it’s twists and turns for suspense; this is psychological thriller as character drama, and all the better for it.

Okada rises to the challenge of portraying such an inward character, and charting the almost imperceptible shifts from moment to moment as he is drawn deeper into a web of darkness.

Ultimately it’s the interplay and the ever shifting dynamic between Okada and Abe that drives the film, and Abe is equal parts ingratiating and terrifying as the killer no one believed was capable of what he was capable of until it was far too late.

Even as the depths of his monstrosity become clear, it’s still hard to believe that such a harmless looking fellow could do the things . It’s all smiles and compliments, but then every once in a while, his eyes will go blank as he speaks, and the true void within him stands revealed. And then, in the very next moment, he’ll answer a direct question about his nature with such seeming vulnerability that you’re moved to pity when you should be repulsed by him and his actions. There is a moment where a neighbor tells Masaya that if Yamato escaped from prison and needed a place to hide, he’d most likely help him out… and you kind of get it.

While the film is by and large a two-hander, the supporting cast does what they need to do to flesh out the world of the film, and to show other sides of the psychic damage Yamato has wrought. Yu Miyazaki isn’t given much to do as a potential love interest, but carries off her confused affections well enough. Takanori Iwata shines, alternately pathetic and scary as an unstable product of Yamato’s attentions. And Ryo Sato, with what can’t be more than five minutes of screen time in a two hour movie, is shockingly affecting as Kaoru the ninth victim, conveying a life lived under an all-consuming veil of trauma in the precious few moments we see of her pre-capture, and agonizing to watch in her doomed attempt at escape from her murderer.

Director Shiraishi directs with an unfussy style and a subdued hand; with the exceptions of a few moments at the beginning which tip towards the Guignol (an effective gambit to engender cognitive dissonance in the viewer), the film compositions are more that of a drama than a thriller. The flashbacks have a ironically golden glow to them and every once in a while, reality and fantasy merge or diverge in subtle ways, but for the most part, the focus is on the characters and their ever-evolving interiorities, as it should be.

Lesson In Darkness presents as yet another serial killer thriller, and in some ways, it is just that. But in focusing in on how the characters react to the twists and turns, as opposed to the twists themselves, marks it out as a step above the usual schlock. For those with the stomach, it’s a rewarding watch.

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