Confessions has been a huge hit in Japan since it was released a month ago and last night it enjoyed a sold-out U.S. premiere at Japan Cuts/NYAFF, but does it really deserve all the hype…?

I’m really not sure it does—and this from someone who went into Confessions as a big fan of its director and was fully prepared to be blown away. So were my expectations set a tad too high? Probably. Then again, that’s why I’m warning those who haven’t yet seen the film to be a bit more cautious, especially given the hugely positive response it's received in some quarters.

That said, does Confessions deserve to be seen by those with an interest in contemporary Japanese film or, more broadly, Asian thrillers?

I think the answer there has to be “without question.” The compelling revenge story at its heart, the strong performances, the stunning visuals, and the makes-you-think twists 'n turns of the plot all add up to superior entertainment. And let’s not forget that director Tetsuya Nakashima is probably one of the most original and gifted directors to emerge from Japan in the past decade. He simply has an undeniable talent for making anything he puts on the screen look visually interesting.

But that’s exactly the problem with Confessions—it’s so visually interesting that its glossy stylishness distracts and detracts from, rather than amplifies or underscores, its themes and moods. I’m not suggesting that stylishness doesn’t have a place in the thriller genre, but when I consider, for example, classic French thrillers (Chabrol, Miller), style always seems to be in the service of narrative clarity, psychological complexity, and dramatic tension. And yes, in Confessions Nakashima hits on all of these with his impressive array of cinematic tricks (all executed pretty much flawlessly), but not as often, or as powerfully, as he should.

Already not crazy about the Robert Fripp-esque score, I found that Nakashima’s trademark use of music plus the snazzy editing and high-polish of the production design resulted in what frequently felt like a series of music videos. The visuals are arresting, to be sure, but I found myself admiring them the way one might the production values in, say, a really good American Express commercial. In short, Confessions sports a bunch of “Wow, that’s neat” moments that, disappointingly, don’t cohere into an overall storytelling strategy that supports the gripping plot. There are just so many times I can be impressed with glistening, pointillistic drops of blood or water and slow-motion lyricism employed for their own sake—such devices need to draw me deeper into the world of the movie, not make me more aware that I’m watching a movie.

A comparison that comes to mind involves the revenge films of Park Chan-Wook.
Often himself guilty of going overboard on sheer style, Park nonetheless has an instinct for when, during key scenes, he simply needs to keep the camera movement and shot count to a minimum and concentrate on the mise-en-scene, becoming a director of actors and emotions, not just ideas and visuals. And that’s exactly what Nakashima doesn’t do in Confessions.

Many audiences, of course, will disagree. For a portion of these perhaps the gripping plot—which involves a schoolteacher’s elaborate revenge on some of her own students—is sufficient unto itself. After all, the strong against-type performance of lead Takako Matsu does provides a kind of “through-line” or foundation that serves to anchor the film. For me, though, it wasn’t enough, especially given that she disappears from the screen for long periods of time as we follow other point-of-view characters.

But although Nakashima’s visual exuberance doesn’t work for me in Confessions, that’s not the case regarding his earlier films. Kamikaze Girls, for example, I’d argue is the one “chick flick” that can be recommended to any male moviegoer. There the stylistic flamboyance fits the subject matter perfectly since a key theme concerns the appropriate image that women should present to the world, and how these constricting notions of “appropriateness” are socially constructed in the first place.

Even more impressive is Memories of Matsuko, which is also screening at Japan Cuts as part of its “Unreleased Naughties” programming. Watching it, you get a sense of what Todd Haynes, Rob Marshall, and Baz Luhrmann have attempted in some of their films but pulled off much less successfully. The film is a grand blending of melodrama (in the best, original sense of the word: music + drama), Citizen Kane-style postmortem biography, and free-wheeling mash-up of Japanese film archetypes (secondary school, the yakuza, and, um, sex are all important to the story). Featuring an interesting, if at times mannered, performance by Miki Nakatani (whom the camera simply adores) the title character comes across as part-cypher, part-symbol. And just when you think the entire film might totter and collapse into a quagmire of self-indulgent kitsch, the script throws you for a loop by injecting some heavyweight spiritual themes. Sure, some might argue that these are just a different species of kitsch, but I found them to be quite affecting.

As in Confessions, you never quite “believe” in what is happening, but unlike in Confessions, you never really need to: Memories of Matsuko is about cultural and individual fantasies, and its dreamy, overwrought flights-of-fancy and overproduced production numbers are extremely well-suited to the material. Confessions, by contrast, simply suffers from being overproduced and, at times, over-directed.

So if you’re disappointed by missing Confessions until it gets a wider North American release, don’t despair. If you can make it to New York on July 15 you can catch Memories of Matsuko. It’s not sold-out yet… but probably deserves to be.