Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kids Will Be Kids

Battle Royale(2000) Directed By Kinji Fukasaku
This is considered the apex of Japanese "shock" cinema, but this benefits from being based on a novel, and directed by an experienced and talented director well seasoned Kinji Fukasaku. Fukasaku was old and near death when he decided to direct this, and he said what inspired the decision to adapt the story was that when he was in a factory at age 15 during the breakout of World War 2, he remembered being abandoned by the staff, and hiding in ruins beneath the corpses of his co-workers after Allied air bombings, on his first day on the job. I'm adding this little fun factoid, because a story which seems so unrealistic and fantastic to allot of people (myself included), can be poignant and real to those with different experiences. One man’s cult cinema is another’s childhood trauma. That being said...holy shit! Holy shit was my first thought as I watched this movie, it was Lord of the Flies, with arbitrary weapons and explosive sci-fi collars. The story is about a group of Japanese junior high schoolers who are drugged and brought to an isolated island where they are then told they are to pacticipate in the Battle Royale program. The BR rules are simple, each student gets a collar that can be remotely detonated should they violate the games rules, a random weapon like a grenade, hammer, sword, machine gun, or bow and arrow, and told that the last one to survive, gets to live. Any questions are answered with the detonation of said collar. The idea of exploding head collars and islands where the condemned are turned into animals to be hunted or forced to kill each other for third party amusement is nothing new to either sci-fi or literature, it goes back to Richard Connell's “The Most Dangerous Game”, but what makes Battle Royale different is that it shows children well “tweens” as they are now called, thrown into frying pan of adult chaos. I think so many young people respond to this movie (aside from the shock glee of watching students blown to bits) because becoming an adult does in some ways feel like being locked in a death struggle of kill or be killed and survival of the fittest. Dividing up all the action is an immensely dark sense of humor (look out of the Godardesque in-titles), but also sad resignation for the passing of naivety, expressed through the children's immaturity and inability to comprehend the seriousness of their situation. Between the bullets and the bashings of skulls, we are reminded these characters are still 14 year olds, interested in crushes and clicks (another kind of tribalism), which adds an odd dash of drama and comedy to the constant mayhem. The shock of the premise gives way pretty early on to one well developed scene after the next, as the body count rises. Esteemed director and actor, Takeshi Kitano plays the teacher master-minding the project also named Kitano, and performs one of the best casual villains to ever grace a screen. He makes what could have been another egomaniacal psychotic, into a sad broken teacher whose just lost control of his classroom and life in general; he’s knifed in the back by one of his own students in the opening scenes. It’s almost possible to understand his frustration, having been in some terribly rowdy public schoolrooms myself, in his feelings that if they want to act like adults, they better start learning to die and kill like them. Which brings me to the films weakest point; the fact that government run project which sponsors the BR program doesn’t make any sense. If BR is intended to scare the rest of the country straight, how come none of the kids know it exists? In the opening scene we see journalists surrounding last years winner; a girl soaked in blood with a homicidal grin plastered to her face, and we know that two of the kids in this years game voluntarily, are survivors of a previous competition. So why is everyone so shocked? And what purpose would there be for staging secret fights to the death, that only government officials would know about? I’m aware this is based on a novel (and one some friends tell me is actually quite a good read), so maybe these holes are filled in there, but in the film, they just plot problems, plain and simple.Battle Royale will definitely turn away the squeamish, and because of the context of Japanese violence; escalating suicide rates, murder, and violent crimes throughout the 90’s I don’t think this story can carry its full political impact as an export, or potential remake, at least not without its proper historical context.Then again talks of the American remake were put on hold after the Virginia Tech shootings, and it's unlikely the mainstream of the states would accept a movie like this anyway, though because of just such incidents it is precisely relevant here. Maybe Japan’s higher education standards allow their viewers to understand a level of satire, our general public might not be hip too. The trade off concerning highly competitive schools is you get an equally teen high suicide rate, which make movies like this and "Suicide Club" major hits in Japan. Someone told me this movie was banned and other told me it just couldn’t find North American distribution, but both amount to the same thing anyway, a lack of distribution is defacto censorship; a pre-emptive strike if you will.Anyway you can believe the hype with Battle Royale it’s everything you will hear it was. A movie to literally make your head explode.


Sam Cooper said...

The book is an excellent read and really expands on the film. You should check it out.

Joe Sylvers said...

I will one day, my list of books to read is longer than my list of films to see, so it might be awhile but one day I will. The sequel to this was terrible though.