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Japan sees ‘Battle’ over pic violence

Film gets rarely used R15 rating

TOKYO — While U.S. politicos fret over screen violence, an upcoming movie that deals with the contentious subject of rebellious, anarchistic high school students is sparking a similar stir in Japan.

“Battle Royale” is skedded to roll out on more than 200 screens on Dec. 16 and has aroused fierce criticism from some quarters — and staunch support from others — after its preem at November’s Tokyo Intl. Film fest.

Helmed by one of Japan’s most respected directors, Fukasaku Kinji, and penned by Fukasaku Kenta, it posits an apocalyptic future in which the country is in a state of collapse, unemployment stands at 15%, schools are marred by uncontrolled violence, and students stage mass boycotts.

In retaliation, the government organizes an annual Battle Royale, in which a randomly chosen class is pitted against itself on an abandoned island in a cruel game of survival. (Think “Survivor” gone to the ultimate extreme.)

It stars Beat Takeshi, one of Japan’s most popular actors, as a former teacher who oversees the battle, which he kicks off by murdering a student.

The movie is rated R15 (no one under age 15 admitted), a classification exhibs say is rarely used in Japan. By contrast, “The Matrix” was released here without any age restriction.

Some critics say “Battle Royale” is ill-timed after a series of violent incidents involving junior high school and high school pupils this year.

In one case, a boy massacred members of the family who lived next door. In another, a student hijacked a bus.

Distrib Toei is trying to downplay the controversy and is counting on the B.O. appeal of both the helmer and Takeshi to draw crowds.

Supporters contend the film is merely depicting a slice of reality. Opponents say that kind of subject matter should not be aired on the bigscreen.

Screen violence is not a major concern in Japan and, indeed, some Tokyo tradesters are bemused about why it’s a hot-button issue in the U.S.

“Japan is more lenient toward (onscreen) violence than sex,” says Ricky Hashimoto, deputy general manager of the international department at distrib Tohokushinsha Film Corp.

Referring to “Battle Royale,” which he hasn’t seen, Hashimoto comments, “There is room for the censorship board (an independent body that administers a voluntary code) to be flexible in accepting that kind of film.”

Similarly, the Japanese Assn. of Commercial Broadcasters is fiercely opposed to government-imposed censorship; hence the nets self-censor.

An informal sampling last week of those who’ve seen “Battle Royale” drew approving comments from young females, but far less enthusiasm from older males.

The general view is that the pic does have violent scenes but they were not regarded as excessive.

Yukio Homma, director of international sales and purchasing at the Toei Co., has just begun to market the film overseas and has not signed any deals yet.

Toei isn’t afraid to tackle violence on the screen, as it bowed “Another Battle,” a gangster pic that is a sequel to the hit “Yakuza,” in Japan on Nov. 23.

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