Before Gus van Sant’s ELEPHANT and Takashi Miike’s LESSON OF THE EVIL there was PANIC IN HIGH SCHOOL (KOKO DAI PANIKKU), a 1978 film directed by Japan’s Sogo Ishii (together with a co-director, the more experienced Yukihiro Sawada), who was just 19 years old. Adapted from a short film Ishii made in 1976, it was shot on 8mm for very little money, being a forerunner of the independent Japanese film scene from which classics like TETSUO, PINOCCHIO 964 and Ishii’s own later films emerged.
Involving a rifle-wielding teenager on a rampage in a high school, PANIC HIGH SCHOOL is obviously no longer as far-fetched as it once seemed. It’s an exploitation film, yes, but one that raises many troubling real-life issues—such as the pressures society puts on teenagers, the availability of guns, bullying and political strife—which haven’t exactly gone away in the years since.
As the film begins a teenager commits suicide, apparently due to the stress of the college entrance exams given by the Tokyo-based Nakasu High School (an opening that may well have inspired that of Sion Sono’s SUICIDE CLUB). It seems the school’s headmasters are unconscionably strict, allowing no holidays and encouraging the instructors to torment their students.
The teenage Jono (Shigeru Yamamoto) acts out in class the day after Tanaka’s death, punching a teacher after the latter defends the school’s exam guidelines. Jono then leaves the campus, steals a rifle and some ammo, and returns to use it on the hated teacher, wounding a girl student in the process.
The school is placed on lockdown. Police are called in, who opt to delay the mass evacuation decreed by the school’s administrators—by which point Jono, who’s now completely bonkers, initiates a stand-off. More killings ensue as Jono barricades himself in an upper level classroom together with several hostages, and we learn more about his background; it seems that, unsurprisingly, Jono is an outcast, belittled by his teachers, his parents and his fellow students.
The film is slickly and stylishly lensed, with magisterial tracking shots and brilliantly staged crowd scenes (as is evident in a scene in which Jono attempts to ascend a stairway amid a flood of students running down it) that belie the low budget. There’s a great deal of passion and energy to the proceedings that favorably sets the stage for subsequent Ishii freak-outs like BURST CITY and THE CRAZY FAMILY.
Unfortunately the performers, both youthful and grown-up, overact shamelessly, and the twangy seventies-centric music score is a constant distraction. Worse, the film is message-heavy, with those messages delivered in an extremely ham-fisted manner that attests to Ishii’s youthful status (sample dialogue: “You think that students who are no good at maths are trash, but maths is not the only thing in life!”).
Exciting though it is, PANIC HIGH SCHOOL ultimately works best as a harbinger of bigger and (much) better things to come.
PANIC IN HIGH SCHOOL (KOKO DAI PANIKKU)
Director: Sogo Ishii (and Yukihiro Sawada)
Producer: Ryuji Ohya
Screenplay: Fumio Konami
Cinematography: Yoshihiro Yamazaki
Editing: Akira Suzuki
Cast: Shigeru Yamamoto, Atsuko Asano, Miyoko Akaza, Yoshiro Aoki, Seji Endo, Eimei Esumi, Yudai Ishiyama, Shigeru Izumiya, Choichiro Kawarasaki, Junko Miyashita, Akira Takahashi, Minoru Uchida, Koichi Ueda, Sakae Umezu