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Kamen Gakuen - Persona (Komatsu Takashi 2000)


Categories:

Kamen Gakuen
[Persona]

Genre: Supernatural Psychological Mystery

review in one breath

Into the bully-infested home room class struts a fearless, ceramic-masked student. Squarely confronting a gang of ruffians, it is soon discovered that behind the mask is none other than Danta, an otherwise weakling student who has heretofore been picked on relentlessly by these same bullies. Donned with his mask, however, Danta exhibits a totally other personality, lacking fear and intimidation. The other students, looking on, soon experiment with the power of masks and find to their glee that behind a facade of anonymity, they experience an overwhelming power to act without the confines of self-consciousness.


story

At the same time a major fashion blitz is hitting Japanese media starring the mysterious Hiroko, who has only been seen behind her characteristic porcelain mask. Her ever-increasingly popular appearances, displaying the fashions of designer Daimon, perpetuate the popularity of the masks as much as they do Daimon's clothing fashion.

A "kamen (mask) fad" soon grips the entire high school, resulting in late night parties amounting to socially uninhibited public orgies. Such lack of social inhibition rapidly turns ugly as interests shift from hedonism to violence. Soon waves of violent, masked youth fill the streets terrorizing the public. And then the deaths begin to occur. The media soon begins to refer to the school as Kamen Gakuen, the School of Masks.

A local tabloid reporter covering this bizarre convergence of masks, enlists the aid of kamen gakuen student Yuki (Kurosu Maya). Through her network of friends, Yuki is soon privy to an entire underworld of kamen events, which eventually lead her to the mask maker, Dojima (Fujiwara Tatsuya). Dojima, it turns out, is a very introverted soul, suffering from maladjusted memories of his father's violence against his mother. Seeking haven from his father's violent blood which flows through his veins, Dojima pours his heart and soul into the creation of masks whereby true reality may be hidden behind facade.

Yuki is soon drawn to the perplexed and foreboding Dojima, despite increasing evidence that Dojima may be behind the rash of mask-related murders. Through her investigative prowess, Yuki soon finds herself as a mask-wearing model (!!) side-by-side Hiroko in Daimon's fashion shows. As such, she not only gathers crucial evidence into the mask-related deaths, but unwittingly becomes the target of the mysterious murderer's scheme.

commentary (possible spoilers)

Did you catch that? I'm the one who wrote it and I am still trying to figure it out.

The first third of this movie, where the "mask" phenomena is being defined, is nothing short of riveting. Here, rather creepy, lifeless masks seem to breathe a near-demonic force into the wearers, whereby all prior inhibitions and inferiority complexes are utterly discarded. To emphasize this demonic power, masked-students' voices are occasionally morphed into what is clearly not natural. This magical power of masks only increases as Yuki naively attends a party intended for solely mask-mastered souls. There she not only must run for her life for fear of violence, but is hypnotized and nearly overcome by a wonderfully spooky masked-child whose spell leads her to the mask-maker's house.

But once Yuki meets her mask-artisan dream-boy, all reference to the supernatural power of the masks is completely dropped and the narrative becomes purely that of crime mystery. We follow Yuki's mundane perspective as she (1) falls for weepy Dojima; (2) shivers in excitement over participating in a fashion show; and (3) walks straight into the killer's trap. I am not exaggerating when I say that the supernatural momentum of the narrative is completely stricken from the plot once the budding relationship of Yuki and Dojima is introduced, which is a shame given the genuinely creepy impression the first third of the movie makes.

The masks are thinly veiled metaphors for the social roles forced upon us all. The film suggests that we live our lives behind these social roles/masks, all the while being formed and conformed in their image. The role becomes us and we the role. By objectifying these roles into porcelain masks, director Komatsu creates a tale whose morale is that we live life as ourselves rather than through the vicarious personalities demanded by society. As to whether or not this message has any real relevance or value, only the viewer can decide. (And this viewer decided... NOT!)

Is it only me or do all of you also want to slap Fujiwara Tatsuya upside the head for his over-the-top poseur ambiance. If you thought (as I did) that his score of the Official Scale of Sappiness (OSS) hit an unmatchable high in Battle Royale 2, think again. His performance here contains enough syrup to fuel the International House of Pancakes (IHOP!) for a year. (To be fair, however, he does a very good job of taming his poseur alter-ego in Miike's Sabu.)

Though I didn't mention her in the story summary, Dojima's dark and creepy sister Reika (yes, he has a sister) is played by Kuriyama Chiaki, who you may recognize from her appearances in some other popular horror films including Toire no Hanako-san (1995 - Yes, that title literally translates "Toilet Hanako"), Shikoku (1999), Juon (2000 - TV version), Miike's TV mimi-series MPD Psycho (2000), and Battle Royale (2000). All these performances are prior to her appearance in Kamen Gakuen. Kuriyama has more recently appeared in Tarantino's Kill Bill (1) (2003).

verdict

This film started out promising, with effective creepiness and memorable spooks. Unfortunately, this excellent start is followed by a rather uneventful and lackluster storyline which assumes the audience has a modicum of interest in (1) fashion shows, and (2) weepy Dojima. But perhaps female viewers are the target here -- Female viewers who long to wear large bizarre hats while strutting down the walkway, and who have a soft spot in their hearts for dark, introverted artists who just may be a serial killer. (!?)

Kamen Gakuen is certainly worth watching, though this is definitely not the caliber of film which will merit repeated viewings.

Version reveiwed: Unsubtitled VHS

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Nada. Random youth violence, often perpetrated by masked ruffians riding small bicycles. One bizarrely melted face. One headlong fall requiring massive sidewalk cleanup. One peacefully floating corpse. These kids' mask parties resemble that memorable party scene in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut The first third of this movie present some rather creepy scenarios. (After that, however, it is all downhill.)

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