Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Battle Royale

I can accept in A Clockwork Orange that youth crime has gotten so out of hand, the fascist British government of an undetermined future develops a brainwashing technique to eliminate violent behavior and free will. I can also accept that the future rulers of society in The Hunger Games use a gladiator-style death tournament to subjugate and distract the masses. But watching Battle Royale (2000), a Japanese adaptation of a novel of the same name, a film which many have said The Hunger Games borrowed from heavily, I could not grasp the basic premise of the movie's scenario, and that bothered me while watching it.

Battle Royale refers to a law passed by the Japanese government sometime in the near future in response to a mass outbreak of juvenile unruliness in the wake of the country's economic hardship. Every year, a ninth grade class of students are chosen at random, dropped off on an isolated island, given weapons, and forced to fight to the death until only one remains alive. Collars have been placed on their necks that will kill them if they disobey, try to escape, or if more than one are still alive after three days.

Right off the bat, I'm already confused. How does this law address juvenile crime? What does it accomplish? If it's a random selection, what incentive is there for any class to behave and shape up? They could be the best and brightest class in the country, and luck of the draw might see them slaughtered. I could understand if it was the worst class or the worst students pulled from several classes, but this method hardly seems constructive.

I'm also puzzled by the Battle Royale's standing in society. The film's opening scene reveals the bloodied and disturbed face of the previous year's winner as she is driven in a jeep to a throng of swarming reporters, suggesting this a widely publicized, widely followed, and perhaps widely popular event. But when we meet the class that competes in the movie, they have to be explained what the concept is, why it's happening, and their role in it, indicating this is a secret government program. Which is it?

But on the other hand, maybe a bit of anti-logic helps the movie? Consider the students who participate in the competition, high schoolers on the brink of adulthood, independence, and responsibility. To the youth just starting out in the real world, being an adult, or at least having to the confront the responsibilities of one, can be a frightening, dispiriting, confusing, and overwhelming experience, not unlike the situation these students find themselves in.

Every adult in the movie, especially Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), the students' former teacher who oversees the game, treats these kids with mocking contempt and ruthless authority. These students, who have been sheltered their entire life and who have had no real worries, are almost pathetic in their utter bewilderment about how the rules of life have changed. Adults, no longer understanding teachers and protectors, have become cruel, violent, demanding, and insensitive. Everything the students been taught or learned is void, and nothing makes sense. The world is not a nurturing, supportive lesson plan, but a cutthroat, kill-or-be-killed game of survival where only the smartest, most ruthless, and luckiest survive. From what I know about Japan (admittedly not a whole not), it is a culture that prizes group cohesion and conformity, but in Battle Royale, the students find out how individualistic and divided they are. The film is an examination of how these students behave when confronted with the harshness of reality.    

Some, like our main characters Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda), try to escape, helping who they can and avoiding killing. Mitsuko (Ko Shobasaki) resorts to manipulation and seduction to murder those in her way of survival. Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), a transfer student who voluntarily joined the game, revels in the bloodshed. Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), another transfer student, operates on an unknown agenda. Some students band together to strike back at their adult oppressors; some panic, striking at anyone who comes near them and destroying lifelong friendships in their paranoia; and others commit suicide. Of course, had they all worked together and not so quickly resorted to violence, more of them might have survived.

Director Kinji Kukasaku also infuses the film with a dose of black humor. The students receive random weapons in their survival packs; some are useful, like a machine gun or a crossbow. Others are laughably nonlethal, like a trashcan lid and a pair of binoculars. Kitano, as the rules of the game are being explained, matter-of-factly throws a knife into the forehead of a student who talks out of turn (at one point, he laments about how in school he is forbidden from hitting his students to maintain discipline).

The violence is not as extreme as I had been led to believe, but it's not whitewashed either. Gunshots are bloody, panicky bursts, throats are slit, arrows lodged awkwardly into chests and throats, and one student's severed head is tossed into a building with grenade in its mouth. What gives the violence more impact is how the actors playing  the students actually appear to be of high school age and not in their late 20s or early 30s (as Hollywood is prone to cast for high school).

Battle Royale is a movie that requires either more exposition or less. More exposition would have clarified just how Japanese society came to condone a barbaric game and how the government operates it; less would have heightened the mystery and generated more uneasiness. Still, the film remains an effective and shocking motion picture. Not for the squeamish or faint of heart, it is rather unforgettable.

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