by Rob Gonsalves
The opening shots of "Battle Royale II" redefine "audacious." The camera swoops lazily in an aerial view of Tokyo, the buildings glowing orange in the light of dusk. We single out two buildings -- which bear a fairly blatant resemblance to the World Trade Center towers that went down on 9/11.You watch this and you say, No. They're not actually going to do it, are they? And then, heralded by deep Dolby Digital rumbling, the towers go down. What's more, we learn from the opening text that the hero and survivor of the original Battle Royale -- the nonviolent Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) -- is responsible for this act of terrorism, and many others. Then we see grainy video footage of him, AK-47 in hand, inciting the youth of Japan to rise up against the adults. If the original film flirted with controversy, the sequel has sex with it on the first date.
"Different from the first, and powerful on its own terms."
Battle Royale II has a famously difficult history. Kinji Fukasaku, the veteran director of the original back in 2000, announced in late 2002 that he planned to direct the sequel; he also announced that he was dying of cancer. Five days into principal shooting (and four days before Christmas, which may account for the sequel's pitch-black view of the holiday -- it takes place mainly during the season), Fukasaku was hospitalized. His son Kenta, who'd written the screenplays for both BR films (and had once planned to direct the first one), took over production, and the elder Fukasaku died on January 12. Barely six months later, BR2 landed with a heavy thud in theaters.
And what a heavy thud it is. Little of the mischievous humor of the first (for instance, the cheerful video instructor played by Yűko Miyamura is conspicuous in her absence) survives in Battle Royale II, a thoroughly different animal than its revered predecessor. Its themes and concerns spread wider, taking in the roots of terrorism, the folly of military action, and the unending cycle of violence. Does it work? Not always; some of the movie is overexplicit and plodding. But where else did you expect a sequel to go? I'd say Battle Royale II should be honored, not lambasted, for going out of its way to set itself apart from the original. If the first one nodded at Lord of the Flies, this one has much more in common with, say, Apocalypse Now.
In the wake of Shuya's bombings -- carried out with his terrorist group, "the Wild Seven" (which has picked up many other recruits beyond its founding seven) -- the Japanese government has passed a new BR act. Instead of being shipped to an island to kill each other off, randomly selected classes of ninth graders will now be shipped to Shuya's island stronghold, given weapons, and ordered to hunt him and his conspirators down and kill them. All this exposition is delivered at a blistering clip by the government's new teacher liaison (Riki Takeuchi, stepping in for the original's Takeshi Kitano), who spews invective at the class (made up mostly of delinquents, unlike the well-appointed, uniformed kids in the first one) and writes down an impressive list of country names on the chalkboard, asking what they all have in common. Answer? They've all been bombed by America. (A dark irony: the actual island standing in for Shuya's island is Nagasaki.)
Some may feel, at this point, that the film is getting off on the wrong foot. The didactic tone of the speeches may ring false even to those who agree with it, and Riki Takeuchi, a big star in Japan, weighs in with a glowering, hyperbolic performance as over-the-top as Kitano's was stoic and subtle. But Takeuchi is your signal that this will be a louder, more impassioned ride, with its mind more on geopolitics than on survival. By encouraging Takeuchi to do such an un-Kitano turn, Kenta Fukasaku may have been aiming to undercut the audience's expectations right from the start. The way he kills off one of the most intriguing-looking characters almost immediately -- a wild-haired delinquent girl played by the teen model Aja -- similarly defuses our anticipation. All bets are truly off here.
From there, Battle Royale II becomes not so much a war movie as a scolding essay on war movies. When the kids arrive by motorboat on the island, almost half of them are cut down or blown up practically before they even reach land. It's Fukasaku's rewrite of the legendary Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan, with the added perversity that the mayhem involves ninth graders -- though many of the doomed soldiers in the Spielberg film weren't much older. Some critics of the sequel have questioned why the government doesn't just nuke the island, instead of sending inexperienced kids over. Well, do you expect war in general to make sense? Whatever illogic one finds in the film is trumped by the illogic we find daily in the newspaper (such as, say, provoking a war over weapons of mass destruction where there are none).
Many of the kids are interchangeable; they're much more demonstrably cannon fodder this time out. The plot essentially focuses on two people: Shuya, who has grown weary of the death machine he has set in motion, but feels powerless to stop it; and Shiori (Ai Maeda), who goes into battle determined to kill Shuya and avenge her father, the teacher Kitano. (Maeda is actually the sister of Aki Maeda, who played Shuya's co-survivor in the original, and whose character Kitano was fixated on because she resembled his daughter. Aki makes a small appearance at the very end of the sequel.) Shuya, so pacifistic in the original, is meant, I think, as an object lesson in how a violent society can create its own menaces -- its own terrorists. Japan turned Shuya into a killer against his will, and now the skills he learned have been turned around onto Japan and its adult leaders. Shiori, too, is motivated by hatred, even though in flashback we see that she and her father weren't all that close. You get the feeling she's using his death as an excuse to work off anger that has more to do with his life.
Whereas Battle Royale was trim and ingenious, Battle Royale II reaches higher and broader, and is a much messier and more overarching affair. I did not and do not judge it harshly for not being the first movie. I came to appreciate the differences, the movie's airhorn Oliver Stone-like insistence. It is clearly the movie Kinji Fukasaku wanted to make and had planned to make; its perceived failings should not be blamed on his son, who has delivered a piercing and perhaps understandably mournful sequel, dense with rhetoric and regret.Overlong, flawed, and hectoring, "Battle Royale II" nonetheless claims its own kind of wounded brilliance. The smiling little girl at the beginning of the first film, the survivor of the previous BR game, reappears here, still clutching her bloodied teddy bear, and still smiling; but this time she's a terrorist, too. This sequel rolls into our current preoccupations like a hand grenade.
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originally posted: 12/26/06 13:31:16