Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Retro Review: Battle Royale

 Everybody is talking about The Hunger Games, a movie that I can feel comfortable reporting comes out this Friday. I can't confirm that, but I have a hunch. And when I say "everybody," I mean one person I know and every entertainment program on television, nearly every store that sells books, music (it has a soundtrack), and any website that wants to piggyback on this manufactured "phenomenon."

 Look, I'm sure that The Hunger Games will do very well (because its target audience was told it would do very well while they're waiting for the next Twilight movie which, by the way, is also now part of a fake "feud" designed to sell teen magazines) in the way that John Carter did not, largely for the same reasons: one movie has been announced as the next "must see" movie and the other was deemed a "failure" with the likes of Ishtar and Heaven's Gate before anyone had seen either film. It's how these things go, and to be honest, I'm not really interested in seeing John Carter or The Hunger Games. They might both be great movies or they might blow chunks and I'm not going to know. I also haven't read The Hunger Games trilogy or any of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars novels.

 To be fair, I haven't read Koushun Takami's Battle Royale, which Kinji Fukasaku adapted into a feature in 2000. I'm not sure that it falls into the "Young Adult" category of fiction or not, but it's certainly a "dystopian" novel, which I was told (on NPR) is "all the rage" and the "new 'vampire'" for teenagers. Fair enough, because when I found out what The Hunger Games was about, the first question I had was "so it's Battle Royale?" The answer, I learned, was "kind of."

 Despite the last few paragraphs, this is not going to be a comparison of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Today is probably the first time that a mass audience in America even knew that Battle Royale was a film. The DVD and Blu-Ray sets released by Anchor Bay represent the first official release of Battle Royale or its unfortunate sequel in the United States. For the last twelve years, the film has been available, usually through imports or suspicious looking copies, and I'm going to guess as the internet developed, probably online somewhere.

 In 2000, Battle Royale was a film of mythic proportions. I was in college, and the film was unofficially "banned" in the U.S. because of the subject matter: a dystopian future where high school students were forced to fight to the death on an abandoned island. There could be one survivor, or everybody died. It was too close to the Columbine massacre, and no American studio wanted to touch Fukasaku's film for fear of the backlash that would follow. As a result, Battle Royale was immediately taboo; it was a film we were not allowed to see, that was being withheld from audiences in the states. That's how it felt to us, in a world where it wasn't a click away, where Amazon and imported DVDs and region free players weren't as accessible as they are now.

 The premise had my attention. The "forbidden" nature increased my desire to see the film. Eventually I purchased a VHS copy of a copy of a dupe of a DVD from overseas. That was probably early 2001, and then I could see what the brouhaha was all about.

 If Battle Royale had been a lousy movie, or had simply been just about some cheap thrills for the sake of titillating gorehounds, it wouldn't mean anything that it took twelve years to be able to buy it in a "Big Box" retail store. The good news was - and is - that Battle Royale is an effective, dark, thrilling, and yes, gory, examination of human nature in extreme situations. It's an inversion of The Most Dangerous Game, where everyone is the hunter AND the hunted.

 42 students from class 3-B in Japan, some time after a massive economic and cultural collapse, are headed out on a field trip. Normally they can't be bothered to go to class - they're openly hostile to teachers, show no respect for authority, and generally act like teenagers. But in this Japan, the government developed a system to keep this problem in check: The Battle Royale Act. After being gassed on the bus, the students wake up in an abandoned school with two strangers. They're wearing metal collars they can't remove, and before they can process what's happening, armed soldiers storm into the classroom, along with Mr. Kitano (Takeshi "Beat" Kitano), their old teacher.

 He explains to them they have been selected at random to participate in Battle Royale, belittles them for being insolent brats, and kills two of the students (one to demonstrate how the collar explodes by remote control and the other because she wouldn't stop talking). This is not a joke, despite the bubbly instructor on the video Kitano wants them to watch. The 40 remaining students (plus two "transfers") are given a bag with food, supplies, and one weapon (ranging anywhere from a machine gun to the lid of a pot), and sent out onto the abandoned island. If they don't kill each other off until one survivor remains in three days, they all die.

 That's a schlocky enough gimmick to keep most people engaged, but Battle Royale goes beyond simply satisfying our urge for carnage: the film becomes a microcosm of societal responses to traumatic situations. When forced to fight each other to the death, the students don't immediately go after each other in a free for all. Their schoolyard relationships are magnified: cliques band together with different strategies and old grudges and crushes are manipulated, sometimes to unexpected advantages. Not everyone wants to kill: a group of girls hole up in a lighthouse in the hope that they can wait it out, and the computer savvy, anarcho-leaning outsiders formulate a plan to disrupt the BR system and even construct a suicide bomb to drive into the school.

 Meanwhile, the transfer students arrived with very different agendas: one volunteered in the hope of killing as many people as possible (indicated on-screen by their student number and name, plus the remaining number of contestants). The other has a history with BR and a lingering question he needs answered, as well as a strategy to beat the system. All he has to do is avoid being killed and finding himself in the "danger zone," areas of the island that cause the collars to automatically explode.

 There are a few flashbacks scattered throughout Battle Royale, providing some depth to why some of the teenage boys and girls do what they do and who they target. It explains some of the jealousies and misunderstandings that lead to tragic results, and the atmosphere of mistrust also causes some of the students to act in ways they'll immediately regret. The film succeeds both in being violent escapism but also as a study of teenage behavior pushed to an extreme degree. The ending may be a little unbelievable, even when you factor in a surprise motivation for Kitano, a man whose own children hate him. If it stumbles a little at the end, I don't mind too much. That, and I do as much as I can to pretend Battle Royale II: Requiem doesn't exist. It's the sequel that continues the story, largely in the wrong ways, and that fails to add anything to the world hinted at in the first film.

 There is an interesting side note that comes from watching Battle Royale again: based on the opening of the film, BR is something covered breathlessly by this future Japanese media. Throngs of reporters and cameras crowd in on the truck carrying the winner of the previous Battle Royale, trying to get information about the survivor of this imposed massacre. What do they get? A smile. It's a potent and disturbing way to open the film, but the concept of media coverage never figures into Battle Royale again. There's no indication that the games are televised or that people are following along at home. Other than Mr. Kitano's daily briefings, there's virtually no communication between the people running the game and the "contestants," let alone the outside world.

 I had forgotten that incongruity, but watching the film again it's clear that the prologue is either abandoned or simply was not considered relevant to Fukasaku or his son (who adapted the screenplay). That element was developed further in the film Series 7: The Contenders, a satire of reality television released in 2001. Battle Royale is successful perhaps because it doesn't even attempt to comment on the rise of reality television or media coverage beyond that opening, but I had forgotten how minute of a factor it is in the actual movie. In the end, I don't think it matters all that much. Eleven years after seeing that washed out VHS copy, I was still enthralled watching Battle Royale on Blu-Ray*. It still holds up, and now hopefully everybody will see what they've been missing all this time.

 * I don't actually have the Anchor Bay release - the Blu-Ray I have is the Arrow Films UK release from 2010, which is region free. It has the first film in its theatrical and director's cut versions, plus a disc of extras. It's basically what was released in the U.S. recently, but without the sequel. I don't miss it.

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