Battle Royale

Reviewed By Mike Bracken
Posted 06/29/01 05:23:17

"Survivor meets Lord of the Flies meets The Most Dangerous Game..."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

What would you get if you crossed Lord of the Flies, Survivor, and The Most Dangerous Game? You’d probably end up with Kinji Fukasaku’s film Battle Royale -- a Japanese movie guaranteed to be the most controversial release this year.

Based on a popular novel by Koshun Takami, Battle Royale is the ultimate game of survival. With the Japanese economy in a tailspin (title cards let us know that unemployment figures have swelled into the double digits) and the youth of the country increasingly more violent and wayward, the government enacts the Millenial Reform School Act (also known as the BR Act). This governmental edict stipulates that each year, one class of ninth grade students are chosen at random, taken to a small island, armed, and forced to fight to the death.

This year’s battle involves Class B from a local middle school, a class comprised of your usual assortment of high school kids. They’re rounded up for what they think is a school field trip, but awake to find themselves on an island and held hostage by armed guards commanded by the game’s ringleader Kitano (the always entertaining Takeshi Kitano).

The students are forced to watch a videotape (which is totally Japanese, complete with a cheerleader-like announcer urging everyone to do their best) highlighting the rules of the game. The rules are simple—kill everyone. Each student is fitted with an electronic collar which will detonate if they wander into various ‘danger zones’ on the island, or if there is more than 1 survivor left at the end of 72 hours. Each is then given a bag with food, water, a map of the island, and a weapon. Some are luckier than others (a few get guns, one gets an uzi), while others wind up with binoculars, or a global positioning system.

The rules in place, the kids are released onto the island, and the game begins. What follows is both an interesting commentary on human nature and trust, as well as some biting social commentary aimed at the traditional Japanese values.

While we get to know most of the class in at least some fashion (even if it is in the moments before they die a particularly violent and painful death), the story focuses primarily on two characters—Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda). This young couple spends most of their time trying to avoid confrontation and find a way out—while only killing when they’re forced to defend themselves. Several other characters figure prominently into the narrative as well—including two transfer students—Kawada and Kiriyama—who’ve been brought into the game under mysterious circumstances.

Faced with a kill or be killed situation, the students all react differently. Some refuse to kill and kill themselves (or are quickly picked off by more aggressive classmates), others look at the game as an opportunity to take revenge on their enemies, some try and hack into the computers of the control center and end the game, and others simply try to lay low and stay alive.

Meanwhile, Kitano oversees things from his command center, announcing the newly dead every few hours along with the new ‘danger zones’ that are off limits. He’s also watching his personal life slowly unravel through a series of phone calls with his family.

The film itself has a somewhat humorous approach—as each victim is killed, we’re treated to an updated scorecard which lists who died and how many students are left. It’s sort of a morbid touch, but I found it amusing anyway.

Needless to say, the film caused quite the outrage in Japan, where student violence is starting to become an issue like it is here in America. Grandstanding politicians (who found the film an easy target guaranteed to boost their popularity) expressed outrage and the film was nearly banned (no small feat in Japan, a country that has very few issues with cinematic violence). The end result was a rating that restricted viewing to those over the age of 15.

It’s my estimation that the reason for the outrage is twofold. First off Fukasaku (who directed the Japanese segments of Tora, Tora, Tora and is no stranger to cinematic mayhem despite the fact that he’s 70 years old) runs wild with the idea, turning in a film that drops many of the novels reported social statemtents (the Japan in the film is an alternate Japan, one that was victorious in World War 2) and turns the film into an exploitation film of first order. Fukasaku shies away from nothing here—the film is violent, gory, and confrontational in its presentation. Only the end (which I feel cops out in a way) gives any indication that this was a mainstream release designed to do big business.

The second issue (and arguably the greater issue, given Japan’s obsession with image) is that it portrays Japanese culture in a less than positive light. Japan’s current economic situation is not great, and the young generation—used to living the good life off the work of their parents—is increasingly more disillusioned with the ‘go to school, get to the good university, get a good job and work hard’ manifesto that has been one of the country’s driving philosophies for as long as I can remember.

The current Japanese youth aren’t that far removed from the ones hinted at in Battle Royale--they’re increasingly more disenchanted with the old ways and far more content to live at home--letting their parents provide for them--than previous generations were.

The film also makes pointed commentary about the cutthroat nature of the Japanese education system—a system well known for its fierce competition to do well and succeed after the ninth grade level. Kids commit suicide over bad grades in Japan—a fact that proves just how intense the competition to succeed on the national tests can be. Japanese youth seem to be under a great deal of pressure—which could account for some of their newfound violent tendencies. However, none of the current pressure compares to being forced to kill your classmates in order to succeed…but one has to wonder if something like that could be very far off.

Of course, you don’t have to catch any of this subtext to enjoy the film. You can look for the deeper meanings (most of which were reportedly part of the novel but excised from the script), but you can get just as much enjoyment out of Battle Royale by viewing it solely as teen exploitation flick (not unlike our own American slasher films, only here the kids kill each other and virginity guarantees you nothing). That’s the beauty of Fukasaku’s film—you can have it both ways.

Takeshi Kitano gives the strongest performance in the film (which is to be expected). Kitano’s character is a terrifying man who takes a perverse glee in overseeing the game. He’s made all the more menacing thanks to his scarred face and facial tic (all remnants from his near fatal 1994 motorcycle accident). It’s a testament to both Beat’s acting (and the script itself) that we can view Kitano as a multi-faceted character. While you’re likely to spend much of the film fearing him (if not out and out disliking him), it’s hard not to feel for him a bit at the climax.

And that’s one of the strengths of the film. Battle Royale is essentially an ensemble piece, filled with kids who are either marked as heroes or villains from the outset. However, in several instances, we watch as villains become heroes all in the space of a single scene. That you feel any kind of sorrow or remorse for the fate these characters suffer seems to make the film more than mere exploitation.

If there’s any real downside to the film it’s that in focusing on teenage characters, Fukasaku and company deliver a lot of melodramatic teenaged angst. Many of the kids don’t come across as real, per se, but rather as caricatures of stereotypical teen traits. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, as a film with 40 characters is never going to be able to develop them fully, but the fact that many of them get to make dramatic deathbed pronouncements is. Few people simply die silently in Battle Royale, and the power of any last breath statements is diminished in each instance this device recurs.

Given the film’s controversial and exploitative subject matter (particularly in this post Columbine era) Battle Royale has only shown at several film festivals here in America. It’s doubtful, given the political climate of this country, that the film will ever get a wide release here in the States. However, the movie has recently come available on VCD (which is like the bastard brother of DVD) and can be picked up for under $15 by those seeking to experience it for themselves.

There’s little doubt that Battle Royale is bound to be one of the most controversial films around this year. The subject matter, the violence, and the fact that kids are forced to kill kids all but guarantees that Kinji Fukasaku’s film will go down in the annals of cult film history. While the film does occasionally become overly sentimental, it’s also got a quite a bit of biting social commentary—commentary that probably hits a little too close to home for both the Japanese and the Americans.

At any rate, if you’re a fan of exploitation cinema, Beat Takeshi Kitano, or cult film, track down a copy of this movie. It’s certainly worth seeing.

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