Battle Royale

Children killing children: that’s the main reason that the superlative Battle Royale hasn’t yet gotten an official American release, and probably won’t anytime soon. It’s the conceit of the movie, and of Koushun Takami’s rather thick (616 pages in the translated version released in 2003) novel of the same name, that the Japanese economy is on the skids and the government has lost all control over juvenile delinquency. Enter the BR Act, which stipulates that a class of ninth-graders will be selected by random lottery to participate in a cruel “survival of the fittest” contest on a remote island. Each student is assigned a knapsack containing basic supplies as well as a weapon stuffed in there at random (you might get an Uzi, or you might get a relatively benign pair of binoculars). The kids are expected to kill each other off until only one “winner” is left.

The opening twenty minutes of Battle Royale, which explain all this and much more, have a malevolent brilliance; the remainder of the film is merely kick-ass. But don’t mistake it for an amoral shoot-em-up. Veteran director Kinji Fukasaku, who died early in 2003 while working on the sequel, was not interested in blood and guts for their own cathartic sake. The heroes of the film, after all, are two peaceful kids — Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda) — who just want to survive from hour to hour without having to kill anyone. The villains, aside from the impersonal government feeding its youth into the meat grinder, are the natural-born killers — kids like the punky Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), who joined up “for fun,” and the spiteful bitch Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki), who racks up the most kills of any of the girls. It’s hard to decide who’s scarier; Fukasaku, like Takashi Miike in Audition, knew that the pretty smile of a Japanese girl, in the context of sadism, can look like the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen.

Part of the reason that an American remake of the movie would be folly is that there’s really no American equivalent to Takeshi “Beat” Kitano. A wildly popular actor/director in his own right, Kitano shows up here as a teacher named (ha) Kitano, who has been ignored and mocked (not to mention knifed) by his students too often. Now he works for the BR program, smiling ever so slightly as he tells the unfortunate chosen class what’s what. Enjoying his power over his now-attentive students, he casually kills two of them. Is he evil? Well, he develops shadings as the movie goes on. Repeat viewings may reveal the teacher as a no-nonsense drill instructor trying to instill in his students the life-and-death stakes of this game, for their own good. I can’t see anyone other than Kitano — his face partially immobilized by a real-life car accident — in the role; our nearest match might be Charles Bronson in his ’70s prime, or perhaps Lee Marvin.

Battle Royale is high entertainment in its own way. The training video shown to the class, hosted by a chipper Yûko Miyamura (who chirps things like “Listen to fight well and with gusto!”), is beloved by anyone who’s seen the film; it’s a vintage piece of sick comedy. The soundtrack, made up largely of booming classical music, gives an epic, Kubrickian scale to the proceedings. When the two grinning killers Kiriyama and Mitsuko meet at last, the clash has weight and force; so does a forest encounter between jogger Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama) and a hapless boy unlucky enough to nurture an unrequited crush on her. Many of the killings have their roots in hysteria or previous enmity (the girls turn on each other with frightening speed). Back at BR headquarters, Kitano tracks it all impassively, perhaps hoping that this will be the year that one or more of the students beat the program.

There’s a reversal or two at the climax, involving a mysterious and more experienced older boy, Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), who takes the pacifistic Shuya and Noriko under his wing — either out of pity or because they remind him of himself in earlier days. Other alliances are formed, too, between a group of girls in a lighthouse whose civility crashes and burns when paranoia enters the picture, or a trio of boys who hack the system and have plans to bomb the headquarters — we spend a fair amount of time watching their progress before they run into the Uzi-packing Kiriyama. Fukasaku is saying that in war, some bonds will come apart while others hold fast; it’s probably no coincidence that the bond that endures is the one forged in the hope of peace, not out of convenience or collective conniving. Battle Royale is a violent film that stands against violence, and maybe that’s the real reason for its controversy. Violent movies that just use brutality as punctuation don’t threaten the order of things; violent movies that give us to ponder the costs of man’s inhumanity to man will always be inconvenient.

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