Friday, November 5, 2010

Short Review: Battle Royale (Kinji Fukusaku, 2000)

An uncompromising portrayal of violence, the Japanese film Battle Royale (2000) became an immediate cult hit and genre classic. It is directed by Kinji Fukusaku, and based on the novel of the same name written by Kenta Fukusaku. The film depicts children as capable of unflinching levels of violent behavior against one another when forced to protect and fight for their lives. Upon its release, however, the film aroused much controversy as it was deemed to be harmful viewing for teenagers. Labelled as 'crude and tasteless' by members if the Japanese Parliament, Battle Royale has created a debate over Government action on media violence.

Battle Royale opens with a prologue title card, which reads that at the dawn of the millennium ten million people in Japan were forced out of work, and that 800,000 students boycotted school. Fearing a youth uprising, Government officials passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act, or the BR Act. The films' central characters are Shuya Nanahara, a charismatic but disillusioned young man, whose mother has abandoned him and whose father has committed suicide, and Noriko Nakagawa, Shuya's friend and love interest. After his class fails to show up for the day, Shuya's teacher Kitano is stabbed by Shuya's friend Nobu. It is clear that the youth are all similarly disillusioned and have little respect for their elders and the frustrated Kitano retires.

During the class' field trip the following year, the entire group is gassed on their coach, taken to an isolated island and fitted with electronic collars. They are all assembled in an abandoned school and find out that they are the class selected that year for the game created by the Millennium Educational Reform Act. Behind the operation is Kitano, working with the Government and the military. The students must kill each other until only one is left alive, and if after three days a winner is not declared, the explosive collars attached to each student will be detonated. These collars also function to prevent students from entering certain areas of the grid, termed 'danger zones', with the intention of forcing the students to encounter one another. One by one the students are allowed to leave the school into the grid equipped with survival packs containing food, water, a flashlight, a compass, a map of the island and one random weapon to utilize. Throughout the game Kitano provides often amusing updates to the survivors via broadcast about their fallen comrades and the new danger zones.

Shuya and Noriko, after realizing that their classmates are taking the game seriously and fleeing attack, shelter together in a cave by the water. Throughout the film we have flashbacks to moments at school and find out more about their blossoming friendship. Some of the students embrace the game willingly and begin to kill their fellow students to ensure their survival, while others refuse to play, even choosing to kill themselves in opposition to competing. The game includes two exchange students who aren't in the class; Kawada (who befriends and assists Shuya and Noriko) and Kiriyama (who kills a large group of students at the start and goes on a solo rampage around the island). A large group of the female students shelter together in a lighthouse, while others try and hack into the main system and blow up the school. It is an outrageous premise and is often ridiculously violent, but it's a guilty pleasure and actually great fun. Following the death of each of the students a numerical countdown appears at the bottom of the screen informing us to the names of the students who had been eliminated and how many are left in the game. Shuya and Noriko stumble across Kawada's hideout, who lets them in and reveals that he volunteered for the game to avenge the death of his girlfriend in a previous game. As the game progresses and only a few students remain, there are some quite moving plot elements. One of the students vows to make the most of his final hours and seeks out both his best friend, and the girl that he loves. When he eventually finds the latter, she shoots him believing he is a threat. She is then ultimately killed by Mitsuko, an unpopular girl who has taken it upon herself to win the game. She utilizes her sexuality and lures some of her male victims by making herself the object of their desires and offering her body to them.

Battle Royale's scenery and cinematography is gorgeous and the films' exceptional score is a collaboration of several pieces of classical music with some original composition. The overture theme is 'Dies Irae' from Guissepe Verdis 'Requiem'. There are some really moving performances from the young cast, and there are enough shocking twists to require your full attention throughout. Battle Royale asks us to question what we would do if forced into the inescapable position of having to kill a class of our own peers to ensure our own survival? Could we do it? Could we kill our best friend or girlfriend without remorse for our own survival? It's a real test of the strength of a young generation, whose grasp on humanity has become disillusioned. In this way I feel the film is also a brave philosophical study of the different reactions and responses to exposure to this disturbing stimulus. The students are scared back into feeling grateful of the lives they have been given but only long enough to find themselves a victim of the game.

While it does stretch its budget pretty far, the film also suffers from its budget confines. There really isn't a lot of singular battles as many of the students are killed as a group in their entirety and this sometimes feels unsatisfying and a quick way to eliminate a number of the minor characters. The final competitors are fairly obvious to predict early on, so the screenplay, while it's certainly an interesting premise, falls disappointingly into cliche at times. But the personal examination of its key characters enhances the film beyond its violent roots and it really becomes something quite philosophical. Certainly one of my favorite films, I never tire of Battle Royale and it's certainly worth a look.

My Rating: 4 Stars

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