Departing from two decades’ worth of domestic and personal dramas and returning to his roots as Japan’s maestro of mayhem, Kinji Fukasaku has delivered a brutal punch to the collective solar plexus with one of his most outrageous and timely films, “Battle Royale.” Pic is based on first-time novelist Koshun Takami’s phenomenally successful dystopian fiction (made even more popular when adapted to a manga) about a sinister game that forces kids in junior high to kill or be killed over the course of three days on a deserted island. The object of unprecedented controversy in Nippon, the film has racked up huge B.O. since its mid-December opening, preceding its international premiere in L.A. at the American Cinematheque’s tribute to the helmer and a slot in the Rotterdam fest.
Fukasaku and his screenwriter son Kenta have reframed the story as a horrific battle imposed by adults on children, a kind of high-tech, fascistic variation on William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies.” In doing so, however, the deeper motivations of many of the principals — as well as the specific social realities in a decaying Japan around the year 2002 — are glossed over in the interest of a visually splendid, ultra-violent body-count spectacle that sometimes lapses into the crudely sentimental. Recalling some of the outrage over youth violence “A Clockwork Orange” generated in early-’70s Britain, “Battle Royale” was slapped with an R-15 rating (no one under 15 admitted) by the Japanese rating board, which rarely applies the restriction to violent films. That action was just one element in a concerted political campaign against the film, partly motivated by the concern that teens would wage copycat crimes, in light of a reported increase in murders by the nation’s traditionally peaceful teens.
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Like U.S. congressional efforts to stem violent content in mass-media entertainment, counterparts in the Diet (Japan’s parliament) have led the charge for control over violent pics, videos and the rest, citing “Battle Royale” as a dramatic symbol for their cause, with some publicly labeling Fukasaku’s film as “rubbish.”
The irony is that the curious teen crowds who have lined up overnight to see pic are likely unaware of the prolific 70-year-old director’s work and have probably not seen any of his 60 films. Outside the Japanese social framework, “Battle Royale” is best viewed in terms of the vet director’s crafty employment of his skills as a maker of extraordinary war and yakuza pics. Here he creates a nightmare vision of the near-future in which war is played out as a deadly game by those too young to understand the deeper meanings of life and death. Depth, though, is clearly not Fukasaku’s aim; his film impatiently offers only a wisp of exposition before getting to the bloody stuff.
It seems that Japan’s economy in the early 2000s has taken a major dive, with double-digit unemployment and kids rampantly boycotting school and attacking adults. The school system, in concert with the military, has devised a fearsome law-enforcement device called the Millennial Reform School Act, aka the BR Act, in which a junior high class is selected by lottery and sent to an island where it will play Battle Royale. Class B in Zentsuji Middle School, thinking it’s going on a holiday, is gassed on its bus and sent to the island — where the 44 students are confronted with angry teacher Kitano (Beat Takeshi), who teaches them the game’s rules in one of the most startling scenes of mayhem since the movies of the wild and bloody ’70s.
A problem from the start is that the precipitating act for Kitano — a sudden attack on him two years prior by a pupil, sending him on hard-hearted revenge against his class — is presented in a choppy, frenzied manner, and his new role as ruthless Battle Royale game-keeper feels like an absurd overreaction. Takeshi’s trademark style as a comically calm presence capable of explosive acts perfectly fits the role, and he is, if anything, an even more fearsome force of violence than the tough-guy personae he’s played in the films he writes and directs.
The kids, terrified out of their minds by Kitano and the reality that only one of them will be left alive after three days (a lethal necklace will detonate at game’s end if more than one lives), are given backpacks with survival goods and a weapon and let loose on the island. It’s quickly clear that the film’s body count will mount to outrageous numbers, and by slow increment (each death itemized by a mordant use of onscreen graphics), and just as clear that our sentiments are to go for Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara), who recently witnessed his jobless dad hang himself, and naive Noriko (Aki Maeda). His weapon is a trash-can lid, hers is a flashlight, and they appear hopelessly mismatched by such instant teen killers as Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki), who’s a whiz with a sickle, and two punk transfer students, Kawada (Taro Yamamoto) and Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando).
Bodies fall — in the gruesome style Fukasaku perfected three decades ago — until a mere dozen teens remain. The helmer haplessly tries to set up a contrast between Kiriyama’s killing-machine nihilism (he’s not a real student, but hired to kill as many as possible) and the hearts-and-flowers of Shuya and Noriko, who are befriended by Mitsuko, a survivor of a previous Battle Royale. But Fukasaku is far more himself with such scenes as the one in which a band of girlfriends are chatty one minute, mowing one another down in paranoid fear the next. The notion that girlish cliques can go John Woo on each other ends up being one of the movie’s funniest, darkest jokes. The conclusion suggests some of the ironic twists of Takeshi Kitano’s films, even if it is pointless and illogical.
Given the most basic characters to work with, the mostly teen cast attacks the material with frightening gusto, and Fujiwara dutifully invokes the voice of inner moral conflict. Production is exceedingly handsome and vigorous, offering no sign that Fukasaku is slowing down.