Running Time: 85 mins.
Release Date: March 08th, 2014 (Japan)
Director: Eisuke Naito
Writer: Eisuke Naito, Makoto Sasaki (Screenplay), Yusuke Yamada (Original Novel),
Starring: Kaho, Shuhei Nomura, Kazuya Takahashi, Saori Yagi, Kokone Sasaki, Ryuzo Tanaka
Puzzle is based on a book by Yusuke Yamada, a popular writer of teen horror stories who has had many novels adapted into films. Despite this he is relatively unknown in the West but I think that Puzzle is a good introduction to his work with its twisting and twisted narrative that sucks teens into a vicious vortex of violence.
Puzzle lives up to its title by being a film told in fragments with characters who reveal themselves to the audience in parts that are never really clear until all the pieces are brought together to create a baroque tale of madness and pain. The film is broken up between different perspectives which recount the gruesome tale in non-chronological order. This is part of a wider approach to the story which is fragmented much like a puzzle. Various events occur to different characters with little to connect them other than everybody is involved with Tokumeikan High School:
A few days later the school is taken over by a bunch of male students wearing sunflower masks. They hold a pregnant teacher hostage and her colleagues are forced to play a bizarre and deadly game to free the teacher involving collecting puzzle pieces from RC cars which are also carrying explosives!
A person is seriously injured and the principal is kidnapped. The whole town is shaken by the incident but stranger things occur as the same students who carried out the incident go missing and the menacing teen leader of the gang reappears issuing broadcasts over the internet promising to cause more havoc and kill hostages including the principal unless the entire town takes part in his deadly game of finding more puzzle pieces.
The media and the citizenry speculate on what it could all mean as the town descends into panic and the police try to uncover what is going on. Little do they realise that these incidents are all related, all pieces of a puzzle that the whole town will see come together to create a picture of depravity.
Of course, we in the audience are also put though our paces by a tricky script and the deceptive candy-coloured look.
Puzzle is a teen horror movie of the highest calibre. It is brutally violent and very dark, the cute and innocent aesthetic contrasting with the flowing (quite often spraying) crimson blood while the script keeps everything off-kilter. Director Eisuke Naito has previously worked on horror films like The Crone (2013), a rather inept zero-budget film about a fast old demon hag haunting some pop idol girls, and Lets Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club (2011), a brutal and ugly film that lives up to its name and with which Puzzle shares a lot of DNA.
To reveal anything of the plot is to pick-apart a pulse-pounding descent into madness and criminality and ruin some of the tricks and turns of the whip-smart story. Suffice it to say that things are not as simple as they look because what seems to play on the fear of teens (or ephebiphobia) and turning them into the “Other” through showing what they may get up to broadens out into a discourse on how adults mould and damage kids as sick crimes are gradually revealed.
Underneath the mysterious plot at Puzzle’s heart is a simple but effective story of abuse and the way it contaminates and destroys a person. There are Freudian motifs and ideas running through the film from the “primal scene” theory where a warped childhood creates a warped person to the villain’s Oedipus complex to the pathology of violence and sadism. The villain is a chilling sociopath of sorts and the contrasting rage and control the character displayed is terrifying. The targeting and evolution of Azusa’s character also fits into a narrative arc that lands firmly on blaming adults even if she is the final girl left holding the knife.
These psychological elements lend the film’s “villains” substance, strong and stirring characterisation that gets the audience thinking about isolation, violence, and crime.
Despite the lovely setting of this respectable sun-kissed little town with clean streets and nice-looking people the grisliest things happen behind closed doors and it’s not necessarily all down to the sunflower mask-wearing kidnappers.
The murderous set pieces are sure to stay in the memory (and may cause laughter) considering how they follow the film’s aesthetic by looking rather cute and/or childlike – big plastic torture devices attached to heads and male crotches, remote control cars with explosives, and a microwave with a “bun in the oven.”
These aren’t necessarily the worst bits of the violence and abuse. The more realistic and brutal stuff that audiences will find the most affecting involves adults exploiting and hurting vulnerable teens in scenes seen on screen and bought up in dialogue. From realistic beatings, and some physical mutilation carried out by a figure of justice in the clutches of rage, to some stomach-churning rape scenes, the worst transgressions are definitely committed by adults. The death games the sunflower villain organises are sadistic but it fits into the wider idea that adults are the problem, not kids answering the question as to why someone might try and commit suicide.
Naito’s direction is purposefully hyperactive at times, slow and contemplative when he wants the audience to think. He engages with all sorts of editing and framing techniques. The 80 minute run time feels a lot quicker due to the mixing and matching of styles and it fits in with the candy-coloured sugar-filled death romp.
Puzzle is a nasty film from the get-go. The director cloaks the darkness of the story at first with its visual approach. Initial suicide attempt aside, it presents itself with a smile, its cutesy aesthetics and a seemingly clean cut cast of characters living in what appears to be a normal town, but deep down drumming away beats a baleful heart of bitter blood and black bile as we experience just how rotten people can be. A dark and disciplined little exploration into the horrific side-effects of abuse, Puzzle is a film that will leave audiences reeling.
While there’s a term for a fear of kids and teens, there’s not one I could find for adults which says it all really…
I have reviewed one other adaptation of a Yusuke Yamada novel and that’s Oyayubi Sagashi (2006)
I may try and review The Crone.
This marks my 1000th post on this blog and I hope to continue going! Thanks for reading!