Battle Royale

Reviewed By billypilgrimnz
Posted 01/31/05 21:20:20

"Brilliant social statement masquerading as exploitation"
5 stars (Awesome)

A victim of people ignoring the "Don't judge a book by its cover" cliche, this is a vital, paradoxically life-affirming splatter film with a stong eye for absurdist detail. It's high school with Uzis and exploding neckbraces.

It's probably best to start with the facts, address the rumors. Yes, it's about 44 young Japanese high schoolers, placed on a remote island and forced to hunt each other until only one is left alive. Yes, it's violent and very bloody. Yes, we do see each death, either in action or the graphic aftermath. So, again, yes, it's an exploitation picture. If many censors and Garden Party Societies had their way, this would be all you would be allowed to know - the thought being, reduce the film to a series of unappetizing descriptive sentences, lock it up tight, let it fade away into the grubby world of urban myth, and have another cocktail.

And so, for those of you who know that when it comes to film, facts mean little in terms of a film's quality and importance: yes, it's brilliant. Scratch beyond the reactionary bluster of shortsighted critics and censors who cannot comprehend that film is not merely a series of individual components (premise, story, soundtrack, direction etc) thrown together to entice innocent youngsters into parting with their money in return for having their souls corrupted (whatever happened to the concept of thought-provoking, controversial films for adults?), and you'll find no shortage of praise, albeit much of it still filtered through the reservations generated by the premise. But when an exploitation film can make salient points about the perils of high school life, be a satire of Japan's cut-throat business world and fashion an effective eulogy for innocence lost and dreams unrealized, reservations be damned. You can begin to believe in the power of cinema again. It truly can do anything.

The first 15 minutes are unsettling; it's the period where you fear the worst. Not in terms of the characters, who are all still pretty faceless at this point (and a number of them inevitably remain so), but in terms of the film's ambition - modern parable or vile trash? The set-up is quick and efficient – bombastic titles give us a quick run down of the sequence of events in an alternative universe version of Japan that lead to the passing of the BR Educational Reform Act, from which the annual Battle Royale is legislated. In a matter of minutes, we are on the island, with the totally disorientated children in a hall, who flock together like a shoal of frightened fish when challenged. And the audience waits to, holding its breath, waiting to see where the film is going to go – it’s a cheap way to generate tension, but it works effectively. They, and we, are greeted with the entrance of a former teacher, played with a weary sense of bitterness and not a little humor by Japanese kingpin actor-director Takeshi Kitano, who runs them through the simple rules: each student gets a bag with food, water and a random weapon, and then they have three days to produce a winner, and if after three days there is no winner, the electronically rigged collars they wear around their necks will explode.

This introductory coda is well-shot, nicely handled, and dripping with menace and tension, and the choreography of the 44 students perfectly timed – but it doesn’t really allay our fears, all it does is guarantee that the film will be at least well-made trash. It’s only after the students tearfully run out of the door one by one, and we see their terror as they say goodbye to friends who are soon to become enemies, that the true nature of the film starts to emerge. As we follow the kids, we are presented with a series of small flashbacks to the tranquility of high school life, which begin to infuse the film with a desolate sense of hopes shattered, and the characters suddenly become truly human, not merely cannon fodder. The film wisely cements the sheer horror of the situation within the teen world – thus the dialogue is guileless and unsophisticated, the acting wide-eyed and broad. But the film itself uses this to its advantage. Witness a girl still unable to profess her love for the object of a long-time crush, even as she is bleeding to death in his arms. “Can I tell you something?” she asks. “You look really cool”

It’s the high school experience wrapped in microcosm - strip away the controversy and you’re left with cliques and outcasts; friendships shattered over petty disagreements and misunderstandings; unrequited love; suicide and rivalries. But in the real world, high school is something we can eventually leave behind, as we pursue our goals and encounter similar problems in different contexts. Here, there is no such future for the kids, and it renders their adolescent dreaming inconsequential. And what is more melancholy than the thought of never being able to even dream again? Throughout it all, director Kinji Fukasaku runs a layer of classical music over the action, and rather than being a cynical stunt, it strengthens the material, gives the vignettes the type of melodramatic energy that high school students (and many adults besides) subscribe to.

Fukasaku, who over the course of his career directed over 60 films, including the Japanese portions of Tora! Tora! Tora! and films with such self-explanatory titles as Cops vs Thugs, Graveyard of Honor, and Sure Fire Death 4, has developed an ability to recognize the natural limits of a scene, flirt with them but never break them. Nothing in Battle Royale slides into gratuitous dismemberment porn; it’s all hard-edged violence used to counterpoint to the dazed innocence – it’s your first day of real work out of college, with Uzi’s and razor-sharp knives. Fukusaku’s work in keeping the film on the rails, and building a snowballing sense of despair and emotional loss, is a directorial masterwork, a fitting swansong to a long, eclectic career. He got to live a full life, do what he loved doing, and he is able to reflect that back to the subjects of this film who see a similar future dissolve before there eyes in scenes of carnage. The film is marked therefore with an indelible, intensely sympathetic touch.

Defender, or champions, of the film find themselves in a difficult position. Battle Royale positions itself on such a knife's edge, a balancing act wondrous to behold, that if anyone actually saw it and then dismissed it as irredeemable, worthless trash, it's hard to argue the point. The deaths of teenagers, graphic or no, should never be anything less than unsettling and horrible, and if someone is unable to see beyond this, then it’s unfortunate that they missed everything else the film had to offer, but it's difficult to begrudge them their opinion. It's only if they attempt to stop others from seeing it and making up their own minds, confusing the medium with the message and placing their moral compass as society's baseline, well, that's when I'll enter the fray. The fact of the matter is, Battle Royale is a triumph, and should be made available to any adult who wants to see it. It's a sad indictment of reactionary censorship that they can't - and it makes the world of cinema that little bit duller. It seems that too many people are willing to accept the old argument that if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck……….well, Kinji Fukasaku would like to teach you all about swans.

Just watch the film. Make up your mind afterwards.

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