Saturday, February 15, 2014

"Battle Royale": the two-paragraph review

2000's "Battle Royale" is directed by Kinji Fukasaku and stars Takeshi Kitano (a.k.a. "Beat" Takeshi) as Kitano, a teacher who is also in charge of a dystopian Japan's gladiatorial contest called Battle Royale. The contest pits middle- and high-schoolers against each other on an island that's been divided up into zones; the kids are given backpacks full of provisions, survival gear, and a special item that might be anything from a gun to an axe to a GPS device to a pot lid. Once on the island, the kids, who all wear explosive neck collars, have three days to kill each other off; the last kid standing is declared the winner, but if more than one child is left by the deadline, then all the survivors' collars will explode, leaving no winners. We learn that this horrifying game was put in place by the government to combat social decay: Kitano claims that it's the kids themselves who are to blame for their predicament—their lack of respect for adults and authority, coupled with their general lack of industry and direction, has eroded the nation's robustness. Most of the movie is devoted to the kids' struggle for survival: the surreal process of being thrust unwillingly into the games, the formation of cliques loosely based on school affiliations, the settling of scores, and the examination of personalities. Some kids take readily to the game while others reject it and commit suicide as a way to escape. One heroic group does its best to subvert the game before time runs out.

The viewer can't help but see "The Hunger Games" in all this. In fact, "The Hunger Games" was accused of ripping off "Battle Royale" (itself based on the 1999 novel of the same name); both films feature a Lord of the Flies-style scenario in which children brutally kill children, and both films select the children by lottery (shades of Shirley Jackson). Quite a few Western reviewers of "Battle Royale" see the film as an exaggerated metaphor for teen angst or as a trenchant social commentary on the dangers of authoritarian government. The movie's violence, unlike that of "The Hunger Games," pulls no punches; there's blood and gore aplenty—cartoonish almost to the point of being funny—and no death (barring one exception) is ennobled or sanitized. The concept for "Battle Royale" obviously comes from a much deeper, darker place than does Suzanne Collins's trilogy. Both "Battle" and "Games" have messages; I suspect that the message of "Battle" is just as political as that of "Games." Some of the kids in "Battle" are genuinely unlikeable, and it was with great Schadenfreude that I watched them receive their comeuppance (especially that snotty little Nobu near the beginning). It's hard to figure out what genre the movie belongs to; perhaps horror/thriller is better than action, but there are black-comedy elements as well. The scenario is ridiculous enough that I couldn't take the movie that seriously (unlike the earnest "Hunger Games," which craves your respect and occasionally veers toward the overly solemn), and the violence was horrible enough that I was startled into shocked laughter. My guess is that Fukasaku was, like Juzo Itami, striving to make some sort of social commentary; many Japanese directors seem to critique Japanese culture and society directly or indirectly. Was "Battle Royale" worth seeing? Sure; it's what "The Hunger Games" should have been in terms of viscerality.* But be warned: if you can't get past the notion of children killing each other, this movie will be a rough ride for you.

*Yes, I realize "The Hunger Games" is based on a young-adult trilogy, which explains why its violence has been sanitized. But the forcefulness of the trilogy's political commentary is undermined by the timidity of its portrayal of gladiatorial violence.

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