" I sure hope this doesn't mean
I'm married to Rutger Hauer."
Battle Royale is one of those films so controversial that its reputation has eclipsed its content. It's tough to find a mention of this film in the English language that focus on its alleged banishment or censorship. The facts, however, don't quite bear that out. In Japan, the movie was originally given what was considered a very strong rating for a film that only contained violence, yet that rating was more or less equivalent to the MPAA's R. (The film would never make an R if it were submitted to the MPAA.) Battle Royale was subsequently brought up in Japanese parliament by a politician as an example of pop culture out of control, but there was no move to ban it. Despite the claims of numerous cult magazines that the movie was banned from release in the States, that's simply not the case. The movie may not have been released in the U.S. yet, but that's an unfortunate result of economics, not law. The subject matter of Battle Royale is too potentially controversial for most of the larger studios to touch, but the film was a big enough hit in Japan that Toei Studios would probably want more for the film's rights than a smaller company like Synapse or Anchor Bay could pay. So for now you'll have to see it on import disc.
"Cram School this!"
The problem with this kind of public profile is that it focuses all attention on the films' violence and it is a very gory film. But it is also witty, satirical, engrossing, thought provoking, and occasionally lyrical.
The concept, a futuristic twist on Lord of the Flies, is pretty simple. In the year 2000 the Japanese government passes the "Battle Royale" act to deal with out-of-control juvenile delinquency. This act decrees that once a year a class of 9th graders is chosen at random, stranded on a small island, and armed with random weapons. The kids are also outfitted with unremoveable necklaces that monitor their location and life functions, and explode if more than one student is alive at the end of 72 hours. Let the fun begin!
Obviously the concept of school kids murdering their classmates seems a little tasteless, but Battle Royale handles it with surprising maturity. The kids are forced to become killers, and the movie provides them with interesting personalities and human reactions to the horrible situation in which they find themselves. The really violently insane people are the authorities, as represented by Kitano, the class' former teacher. Kitano is somewhat bitter about an incident in which he got stabbed in the butt a couple years before, and he relishes the chance to guide his former charges to ghastly deaths. (The current teacher is killed and mutilated because he won't toe the line!) Kitano is played by actor/director Takeshi Kitano (Violent Cop), who uses his partial facial paralysis to great effect. This is definitely the most animated we've ever seen the actor, and the fact that only half his face moves adds some surrealism to the moments in which he shows emotion. He would have made a much better Two Face than Tommy Lee Jones, and wouldn't have needed any silly purple make-up!
Excedrin® is the headache medicine.
Our main characters are the blandly agreeable Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda), who get shafted in the random weapon department. Weapons include Uzis and crossbows, but these two get a pot lid and binoculars. Feeling decidedly under-armed, the pair form an alliance of a type with Kawada, and older boy who is not part of their class. It seems that he's one of two ringers who have been placed on the island too, to "fix" the outcome.
From here on the movie is very episodic, following Nanahara and Noriko as they travel around the island, but occasionally sidetracking to show us a violent little vignette that's occurring somewhere else. As one might expect, all the petty little social bullying that takes place in high school is magnified a hundred times by some of the kids, with numerous deaths resulting. Our favorite is a scene in which a handful of the girls have set up a domestic little base in a lighthouse. But one accidental poisoning later, it turns into a bloodbath. There are also some fun scenes with Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki), the class bitch who has decided to live up to that title to the nth degree.
"Oh, I'm a lumberjack and I'm okay..."
Where Battle Royale gets itself into trouble is in the actual logistics of the Battle Royale Act. The rules of the game are perfectly simple; how that game is supposed to translate into a better class of youth for Japan is unclear. The class seems completely unaware of the game's existence, despite the media circus that surrounded previous games. This is an important detail that allows the key dramatic moments to work, but it doesn't make much sense when you think about what the Act might be intended to accomplish. If the game is intended to scare kids into being model citizens, then one would a) publicize the game's existence heavily and b) choose the game's participants based on their conduct, rather than at random. If Battle Royale's purpose is to psychologically scar its participants, then it doesn't make much sense to kill off all but one of them. The introduction of two rogue elements to "fix" the Battle is even more of a head scratcher.
People have got to learn
to stop saying that.
The movie is based on a novel of the same name (soon to be published in English) and we hear that the book places these events in the context of a fascist society, which may make more sense. If a truly fascist society is looking for leaders, the survivors of something like Battle Royale would be at the top of the list. With that perspective, the story becomes rather reminiscent of the Orson Scott Card novel Ender's Game, which is itself in development as a film. How the two movies eventually compare will be fodder for many a conversation between film buffs, we're sure. For now, though, it's enough to say that Battle Royale is the most sadistic (and blackly humorous) depiction of a society's manipulation of its youth that we've seen on screen in a very long time.
The motives behind the game are murky enough to be distracting, but once you accept this flaw, the other elements of the movie fall into place nicely. The movie was directed by Kinji Fukasaku, the prolific filmmaker who helmed such cult classics (both good and bad) as The Green Slime and Black Lizard. He guides the story with a sure hand, from the hilariously perky orientation video to the decapitation of a young man who should have really kept is mouth shut while he was ahead. We say, put Kinji in charge of the next round of Survivor it will get the best ratings ever.