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As I write, the newspapers are reporting that a new film is selling out shows even though it hasn't opened yet. The Hunger Games sounds like American Idol with death sport combat, and fans of cult films are already associating it with a particular violent fantasy from twelve years ago.
Considered when new the most provocative, antisocial film yet from Japan's Kinji Fukasaku, 2000's Battle Royale is an exciting if essentially irresponsible teenage bloodbath movie. Too flip and spirited to be pretentious, it sets up an intriguing premise to motivate its non-stop circus of carnage. The marketers jump to use a quote from Quentin Tarantino, who said it was his favorite film (that week) and wished he had made it himself. And the exploitation-loving director wasn't kidding -- he quickly snapped up Battle Royale's kinky teen killer Chiaki Kuriyama to play his unforgettable Gogo Yubari in the first volume of Kill Bill.
The interesting Fukasaku has directed weird crime stories (Blackmail is My Life), goofy sci-fi (The Green Slime) and the near-psychotic Yakuza epic series (Battles without Honor and Humanity (sic). He was also chosen to co-direct the Japanese sequences of Fox and Toei's Tora! Tora! Tora! All he need do for Battle Royale is wind the clock in author Koushon Takami's violence machine, and set it in motion.
Battle Royale's science fiction story premise is a pretext for the promised mayhem. A rapid series of announcements tells us that Japan has been hit by an economic collapse, unemployment, riots, etc. In response, the government cracks down on youth rebellion by forcing selected groups of high schoolers to fight to the death on an uninhabited island. Ex-teacher Mr Kitano (Beat Takeshi of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) entreats a group of kidnapped kids to watch a prepared video tutorial, and kills two students when they protest. The remaining 42 are given bags with a weapon (which range from machine guns to a GPS device) and let loose. Each student is fitted with an explosive tracking collar that cannot be removed. Anybody who breaks a rule will be killed by remote control. The kids are told that in three days only one of them can be left alive. If they don't start killing each other, they'll all be killed when the deadline passes. Kitano adds two 'wild card' students to the mix -- tough-looking boys clearly eager to fight and survive. Being passive and hoping for the best doesn't sound like a good idea.
Oddly, the foolishness of this premise is not at a drawback -- the old Cooper & Schoedsack movie The Most Dangerous Game invented a mad Count who wrecked ships to provide human game for his hunting revels. The elaborate and almost credible story device, it's really the same kind of launch pad notion to get to the rough stuff. The difference is that Battle Royale gets its setup over with in about twelve minutes.
The kids scatter and begin their murderous free-for all. A couple of maladroit kids get wiped out immediately, and others are ambushed in groups of three and four. Lone wolf operators lay traps or feign friendship to get close enough for the kill. Other combatants pair off or form mini-groups for security, denying the obvious fact that they're all really each other's enemy -- to the death.
Fortunately, nobody makes speeches about this death game being a metaphor for society at large. The amusing joke is that Battle Royale simply up-scales the petty cruelties of high school life up to the level of murder. Smart-ass girls use the same social tricks to get the drop on their less cynical classmates. Calling somebody "fatty" is an aide to rationalize a kill. Some of the boys are into the spirit of the slaughter, but show mercy now and then to help maintain a good self-image. Not so the Wild Card outsiders, who rarely miss and don't make stupid mistakes. One romantic couple is so disheartened by the awful game that they commit suicide, a choice that has echoes in the Japanese culture. Do an inordinate number of youngsters still kill themselves if they do poorly on the all-important academic placement tests?
The "fun" for young viewers, of course, is seeing kids just like them participate in the violent action. Many of these students have braces on their teeth. One sad sack boy uses the opportunity to hit on a girl he's been lusting after for years. This unfortunately gives her the psychological trigger she previously lacked. Some of the kids have been given shotguns, Uzis and some other kind of machine gun, but there are also many handguns, swords, a crossbow, knives, etc. to guarantee plenty of bloodletting. Many of the kids become literally blood-soaked as the battle proceeds.
The movie has a correlative for every teen ritual, short of a high school prom. In one sidebar storyline, the teacher Kitano reveals an odd emotional relationship with one of his ex-pupils.More than one desperate romance forms, and various peaceniks make the effort to say "Can't we just get along?" Two girls with a megaphone broadcast for peace, but succeed only in giving away their location. Determined computer programming students strike at the game itself, hacking into the Battle Royale computer and throwing it into chaos. They also cobble together an IED for a suicide mission against the command headquarters.
That association with guerrilla combat (or terrorist warfare) is only the tip of the iceberg. When we heard of Battle Royale here in America in 2001 or so, it was the height of un-screenable, practically unmentionable bad taste -- the shocking Columbine massacre was still fresh in the public consciousness. For the average "responsible" viewer, especially those trying to raise kids, the idea of seeing a bunch of cute teens break the killing taboo would be too much at any time. The movie doesn't flinch from sadistic details. One effective moment has an attacker toss a grenade into a building -- a grenade stuffed into the mouth of a severed head. Pro- Royale folk can rightly claim that just about anybody can be converted to full-on savagery these days. Anti- Royale voices might with justification lament that movies like this one promote violent fantasies. This kind of movie fare was unthinkable to my generation -- one didn't necessarily want anybody to know that one was capable of thinking along these lines. Today it's light entertainment.
Battle Royale is cleverly directed and attractively shot. Not only does Kitano-sensei broadcast the body count four times a day, Fukusaki pops the names and data for the latest victims on screen. The countdown climbs until fewer and fewer combatants are left alive.
What's not practical about the show? Well, unless Japanese gun policies have changed, it doesn't seem likely that so many of the kids are familiar with their use. Also, those machine guns keep firing for an awfully long time - where is all the extra ammunition coming from? Many of the killings are rather protracted. In my experience, receiving even a minor wound effectively puts one out of action and in a great deal of PAIN -- yet some of these teens are shot multiple times without going down for the count, like the bandits in The Wild Bunch. Just sayin'. If you like to see blood spray and neat school uniforms soaked in quality teen hemoglobin, this is the show for you.
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray set Battle Royale: The Complete Collection is an excellent transfer and encoding on all counts, color and sound. The promotional text on the classy deluxe package claims that this is the first official North American release. The solid book-style packaging comes in a clear sleeve. The thick card 'pages' inside contain graphic artwork and stills, and four disc sleeves similar to old-fashioned holders for 78rpm records. Disc One is the slightly longer director's cut and the second BD disc is the theatrical version. Disc three holds Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003), a show that, according to what I've read, pleases some viewers and is dismissed by others. I watched a few minutes and what I saw didn't have the same intensity as the main attraction.
The fourth disc is a DVD loaded with promotional and informational featurettes on the Battle Royale phenomenon: making-ofs, a variation on the film's goofy instructional video, loads of audition and rehearsal footage, another documentary, trailers and TV spots, including a "Tarantino" TV spot. There's even a special effects extra -- I suspected that some of the blood action had been augmented in post-production.
Everything is in Japanese with English subtitles. I thoroughly enjoyed Battle Royale, but I no longer have impressionable children under my care. I guess the tots are better off with those harmless video games.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Battle Royale: The Complete Collection Blu-ray rates:
1. Now I'm really glad I didn't see the whole thing department.. or maybe now I have to: a note from Allan MacInnis, 3.23.12:
Glenn - you need to watch Battle Royale II. Not because it's a good film: it was completed after Fukasaku's death by his son, and (compared to the craft and intelligence of the first film) presents a delirious hodgepodge of hystrionic violence, bizarro film references, cringe-inducing high school nostaglia/ sentimentality and over-the-top scenery chewing - make that Japanese over-the-top scenery chewing - all in the service of a political parable that will baffle the hardiest consumer of dystopian sci-fi. It's a f______ mess, to put it plainly, but (presuming they haven't altered it somehow for North American consumption) it is one of the most fascinating messes you'll see.
For one thing, there's a "Normandy Invasion" sequence that seems mostly about gratifying some perverse need for Japanese teens to see themselves brutally slaughtered in the fashion of Saving Private Ryan; for another, the film is rife with 9/11 references and (sometimes veiled, sometimes blatant) anti-Americanism of a sort one does find in Japan, but which is seldom made the stuff of public consumption. It ends on perhaps the most troubling, confused note politically that I have encountered in a film in my lifetime.
(SPOILER FOLLOWS) The anti-Battle-Royale faction (led by the male survivor from the first film), who have been branded terrorists by the Japanese government, end up taking refuge (it is clearly implied but not stated) with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, who are presented as sentimentalized heroes, battling the American oppressor. I kid you not: it's a stunningly WTF film moment that needs to be seen, but will not be believed. Few godawful flm messes are as spectacular, provocative, or memorable as Battle Royale II.
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T'was Ever Thus.