One place where “Battle Royale II: Requiem” is not likely to unspool is Dubya’s White House screening room. A part poetic, part action-filled bulletfest in which the “terrorists” are the good guys, this follow-up to the controversially violent Japanese actioner, in which schoolkids slaughtered each other on a deserted island, is a cheeky diatribe on contempo U.S. imperialism that doesn’t pull punches. Less pulpy and manga-like than the original, and with a more serious, straight-ahead plot, pic may disappoint those looking for an even bigger thrill fix but still looks to garner healthy biz in receptive territories with a long afterlife on ancillary.
In Japan, film opened July 5 amid a fever of expectation with a record $2.8 million opening weekend for distrib Toei. In the summer stakes, however, it was resolutely clobbered by another sequel, “Bayside Shakedown 2.”
Pic has locked sales to more than 24 countries, the U.S. not among them. Even the first film has yet to be released Stateside in any form, though it was shown in Los Angeles at the American Cinematheque’s tribute to veteran helmer Kinji Fukasaku in early 2001.
Unlike the original, based on a novel by Koshun Takami and released in late December 2000, sequel is a total invention by Fukasaku’s 30-year-old son, Kenta, who scripted the first movie. Wisely deciding the same shock couldn’t be pulled off twice, he’s taken the concept in an unexpected direction, constructing a pulp-political invective against super-power domination spliced into a relatively straightforward, commando-style storyline. The mix does finally work, and improves on a second viewing, though the sameness of action scenes is still a major weakness.
Socko opening goes for the jugular as the soft voice of Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara, encoring), a survivor of the first movie, is heard over amber-colored helicopter shots of Tokyo cityscapes. It’s three years since he and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda, ditto) survived the Battle Royale Survival Program, and they’ve since dedicated their lives to the “struggle.” Over a sudden burst of the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem, twin towers in the, uh, Shinjuku district collapse in on themselves, in almost lyrical slow motion.
Onscreen captions describe how “the world then entered an Age of Terrorism,” Shuya became an international terrorist suspect as leader of the group Wild Seven, and “in the name of justice the adults introduced a new game, the Millennium Anti-Terrorism Act, aka Battle Royale II.” Shuya, surrounded by fellow masked fighters, appears in a bleary video, declaring “war against every last adult.”
Post-titles, things calm down a bit as sullen teen Shiori Kitano (Ai Maeda, younger sister of actress Aki) is introduced. She’s the daughter of the ex-teacher (Beat Takeshi) who supervised the slaughter in the first movie and was finally killed by Shuya. Shiori enrolls in BRII to somehow understand her own pain.
Next couple of reels largely replays those of the original, with 42 high schoolers carted off to a military establishment just before Christmas, fitted with explosive necklaces to keep them in order, and harangued by the new program supervisor (Riki Takeuchi).Instead of being sent on a mutual survival mission in which everyone is instructed to kill everyone else, they’re formed into military-style units and sent off to an island to kill Shuya and his group.
The new pic’s different tone is immediately apparent. There’s none of the tension over which individuals will kill whom, and with everyone dressed in commando gear, it’s not so painfully evident that these are schoolkids who are murdering and being murdered. The sexual tease of the original, with the girls in blood-spattered short skirts, is also missing.
Script introduces one new element: Girls and boys are put into pairs, and if one dies the other’s necklace also explodes. Aside from that, as the teens establish a beachhead and battle their way up to the ruined building where Shuya & Co. are holed up, pic plays like a fairly conventional war movie. Action scenes are kinetically staged and scored, with loads of casualties, but there’s none of the quirky individualism to the deaths that elevated the original pic into a blackly comic manga.
It’s at the hour point, when the survivors have come face-to-face with Shuya, that the political element starts to take over. After freeing them from their deadly necklaces, Shuya convinces them to join him in his struggle against the adults, describing how, after escaping to Afghanistan, he was struck by how a country that had been bombed to hell and back could still smile.
Second half is considerably talkier, with more emphasis on developing individual characters and several sections of poetic repose amid the gun battles. Shuya later expands on his philosophy, how he’s fighting against “a handful of adults, a handful of nations, that selfishly define the nature of peace and freedom in this world.”
Last act is triggered when “that country” decides the Japanese government can’t get rid of Shuya and threatens to bomb Japan unless the Nipponese prime minister gets his act together. A poetic coda, which has a naive emotional power thanks to the earlier character development, lays the ground for a possible “BRIII.”
Fujiwara, who had a fairly mild role in the original film, is quietly impressive as the calm, evangelical, Bin Laden-like teenie, surrounded by candles and swathed in Middle Eastern attire. As Takuma, the de facto leader of the schoolkids, Shugo Oshinari mostly plays one-note hysterical and is harder to identify with. On the distaff side, Ai Maeda is impressively contained as Shiori, though in general, the girls feature none of the outrageously cartoony types who made the first, more episodic movie such a delight.
Among the adults, Takeuchi, a Yakuza regular in Takashi Miike’s pics, is distractingly over the top as the new program leader, in a perf that lacks the dry, deadly wit of Takeshi Kitano’s role in the original. (Kitano himself, under his acting moniker Beat Takeshi, appears very briefly in flashback as Shiori’s father.)
Production design by Toshihiro Isomi constructs a wonderful folly of walkways and corrugated-steel chaos for Shuya’s derelict hideout. The Afghan scenes were actually lensed in Japan, to convincing effect, with a few establishing shots photographed in Afghanistan.
Film is billed at the start as “A Kinji Fukasaku Film,” and his name precedes Kenta’s in a later billing. In fact, the veteran director, who died in January of prostate cancer at age 72, helmed only the first day of shooting. Pic is dedicated to his memory.