Thursday, June 25, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Battle Royale (2000)

The dystopian sub-genre in the science fiction cinema has long held a fascination -- even obsession -- with bloody games, or contests.

Remember The Tenth Victim (1965) about a game of murder and assassination for the jet-set?

Or the twin demolition derby dystopian movies of 1975: Rollerball and Death Race 2000?

In the eighties, we had fare such as The Running Game (1987), which mocked American TV and game shows, and this century has given us The Hunger Games (2012), a franchise that endures even as I write this review.

Battle Royale (2000), based on the novel by Koushun Takami, follows in this familiar tradition, but also stems from a specific, Japanese cultural and historical context. 

From 1996 to 1999, juvenile crime in Japan spiked. According to The New York Times, the “fastest growing criminal category” in Japan at that time involved minors. In one decade, the number of violent crimes committed by juveniles doubled.

The stories of these turn-of-the-century youth crimes were shocking to the nation, and remain so to this day. In 1997, in Kobe, for example, a 14-year old boy decapitated an eleven-year old boy, and clubbed a ten year old girl to death. In Yamaguchi during the same span, a minor strangled and killed a mother and baby.

The reasons behind this uptick in youth crime are numerous. 

Some scholars point to a weak national economy, which offered too few jobs to young people finishing school. We've all heard or read references to Japan's "lost decade."

Others cast a light on the social aspects of the culture, like the drop-out rate, and the push (via “juku” or “cram” school) to compete for academic/economic success. That intense competition -- which sometimes saw students attending school programs from early morning to nearly midnight -- kept children from being at home with their families. The same article I quoted above observes that, in particular, children were cut from spending time with their fathers.  The absence of present, engaged fathers, was -- and remains -- a catastrophe in many places around the world, including this country.

So, to put a fine point on it, economic success was prized more highly than family time in the Japanese culture during this period (the same period, incidentally, that gave rise to Ringu [1998]).  A whole generation, it seemed, as a result, lost faith in the future, and their place in it.

In response the youth crime wave, new, draconian laws were proposed to address it. For example, it was suggested that there would be an increased detention period for juvenile offenders, and that the age in which they could appear in criminal court would be lowered from 16 to 14.

All of this information and history is necessary back-story, in a sense, if one hopes to make sense of Kinji Fukasaku’s ultra-violent film, Battle Royale.  

The film depicts a few-days-in-the-future Japanese society in which children are out-of-control and violent, but where, ultimately, the adults are responsible for the worsening situation because of the laws they have imposed. 

In the fictional Japan of the film, specifically, a BR (Battle Royale) law (or Millennium Education Reform Act) has been enacted. It states that troublesome students can be removed from their school rooms and remanded to a remote island, where they will kill each other in a contest over a three day span.

Only the last survivor will return home. Explosive collars make certain that this is the case, as do rotating “danger zones.” 

The lord of this deadly game is a teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) who was once stabbed by a wayward student, and now, out of spite and hatred, sentences students to untimely, monstrous deaths.

Battle Royale follows one classroom of kids as they are taken to the island and must compete to there, against one another, to survive.  

The action on that island is brutal, monstrous, and bracing.  

However, as in many films of this type (see: The Last House on the Left [1972]) there is a pro-social meaning underlining the violence. In this case, we are asked to reckon with the savagery and the barbarism of the students on the island...much as newspaper readers in 1997 would encounter the savagery of the crimes I tallied above. 

But then, the film goes a step further, and asks audiences to reckon with the idea that the cure -- a crueler, less sympathetic and more violent society -- is worse than the disease itself.

To put the matter another way, Battle Royale reminds us that youngsters may be violent if they lose hope, or are abandoned by society and family. 

But the real monster here is that society which made this world for them: one of no hope, no escape, and no love. It is a society whose primary lesson is be the best or you have fail. Kill or be killed. And take no prisoners in your quest to be number one.

“Nothing is against the rules.”

At the start of the new Millennium, Japan suffers an economic depression. There is 15 percent unemployment, ten million people out of work, and rising violence, especially among the country's youth. 800,000 students boycott the Millennium Education Reform Act, which has been crafted to address the uptick in crime.

Each year, under the new law, troublesome students in a random class are taken from their school and transported to an inhospitable island. There, they will fight to the death, until only one student remains.  

This year, class 3-B has been chosen, according to game-master Kitano.

Among those abducted for the fight are the gentle Noriko (Aki Maeda) and a young man, Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) whose father recently committed suicide, all but leaving him alone in the world. 

In the course of the games, Shuya seeks to protect Noriko, and and also team-up with a former game-winner, the mysterious Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), to survive the extreme violence.

But alliances are neither encouraged nor allowed here, which means that everyone is constant danger, even from those they trust most.  

And worse, some students take glee and pride in their pursuit of murder.

“How can you all kill each other so easily?”

Battle Royale (2000) succeeds on several thematic and literal fronts. In the first case, the film is a blistering action film, one totally lacking in political correctness or decorum. Here, school age kids commit murder and die bloodily.  Innocent youngsters, I should add, are hunted and killed without remorse.  Some beg for their lives, and are killed anyway.

Again, there’s a reason for this level of unadulterated violence: it rocks us back on our heels and shocks our sensibilities.  The violence must be edgy, must push the envelope, or the movie's point doesn't transmit.

In America, this approach likely would not fly. For instance, I can recall the late movie critic Gene Siskel giving James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) a thumbs-down review because it often put a child (Newt) in direct danger.  

Imagine what Mr. Siskel would have made of Battle Royale, in which children kill one another viciously and graphically on camera.

Again, however, there is a thematic point.  The violence -- and the blunt, indecorous nature of the violence -- shocks the system.  These are little more than children, as you can see from the photos accompanying this post.  

But they are drenched in blood, surrounded by death. Witnessing this violence here, as I noted above, is akin to reading about or countenancing some of the violent youth crimes conducted 1996 - 1999. The brutal, taboo-shattering nature of the violence makes us wonder, how is this possible? 

How has society gone so wrong that the youngest among us think that it is acceptable to act so violently, and without thought?

Putting aside the in-your-face aspect of the violence it often depicts, Battle Royale is brilliantly-staged and filmed, with the violence being timed and shot for the most dramatic and visceral impact.  

At times the violence is so over-the-top and intense that you may be tempted to let out a nervous giggle. It's discomforting.

And that nervous giggle, in a sense, is the key to the film’s satirical argument.  

Specifically, Battle Royale operates, at least on one level, as a metaphor for the pressure-cooker that students face in Japan, with juku and relentless study. They must metaphorically slay their classmates every day to achieve success academically and economically, and this means beating everyone, even their friends.  

No alliances will get them to first place in school, or to the best job academically.  They must show no mercy, no quarter in their rise to the top. Gazing at Battle Royale’s violence, it can be interpreted as a literal representation of Japan’s academic regime.  Here there is no prize for second place. Yet thousands of students are competing…for slot one. Felow students aren't friends.  They are enemies to be dispatched.

Even the explosive collar seems to be a comment on the rigorous academic competition of students in Japan's schools.  They may not slay others successfully, but there’s always a risk their heads will blow-off from all the pressure of cramming…

Much more intriguing to me, however, is the serious (rather than satirical) social commentary laced throughout the film’s text.  

In Battle Royale, we encounter a society that fears youth violence, so what does it do?

It rewards successful violence. It breeds violence. The problem, as noted above, is an outbreak of juvenile crime, but the Millennium Education Reform Act only ensures that students become more adept, more skilled in their use of violence.  

Consider this fact: any class can be picked, any year. So it becomes incumbent upon a student to prepare -- cram? -- to survive in the event his or her class is picked. After a few years, students will be cramming not in academic subjects, but in the art of dealing death.  The law only encourages one to become a cold-hearted killer.

The purpose of rehabilitation or reform in Japan is “shokuzaikan,” the insight to view your crimes in a new, empathetic light.  You must look at who you hurt, and why your hurt them, for example. What was the impact, on a human level? On a personal one?  On a societal level?

The Battle Royale in the film doesn’t achieve that end of self-awareness or reckoning...even in the slightest.  =Instead, it encourages blood-thirstiness, a kill-or-be-killed attitude that puts self-survival and success above all else. 

In this case, the film's “bad father” figure, Kitano embraces a system which creates additional student assassins, much like the one who stabbed him in the first place.

Indeed, the direct result of the battle/contest featured in the film is that he is assassinated by students who, before the games, would not have come after him. They would not have imagined hurting, let alone murdering him.

On a broad scale, then, what Battle Royale concerns is the idea that tougher laws -- heartless laws -- can never make better people, only meaner, more cut-throat ones. 

The idea with criminal reform is to make the criminal pay his or her debt to society, and then make him or her better able to return and function normally in society.  

At the end of Battle Royale, by contrast, two students become criminals. Outside the game experience they would never have been criminals.  We last see these protagonists in a major city, on the run, trusting no one but each other.  In this case, clearly, the draconian law has backfired.  It has made the law-abiding youth of Japan unable to trust, unable to join society.  They have cashed in their chips, and signed out of the culture. Permanently.

Indeed, a key line in the film states “I’ve never really trusted adults,” and that’s because, in the film;s fictitious world, the adults have responded to a problem not by making it better, not by examining its root causes, but by making it infinitely worse.  The laws to crack down on teen violence have only made teen violence necessary.

There is also, unusually, hope in the film. 

Shuya remains an open, hopeful character, despite all the tragedy that life has thrown at him.  He knows he will be punished for making allies with other students, and yet he seeks and honors those alliances because he knows it is the right thing to do. Inside of isolating himself from others, he responds by reaching out.  That is a real sign of strength.

I don’t feel -- as some do -- that The Hunger Games (2012) is a straight-up rip-off of Battle Royale. But I do believe that the popular American franchise appropriates the Japanese story’s ending, which is that the “stupid system” is defeated, specifically, by disobeying rules about the contestants working together, building alliance.  That is a constant in both films, but Battle Royale handles the concept better.

I applaud Battle Royale for gazing at this idea with such clarity.

Another line in the film also resonates: “If you hate someone, then you have to live with the consequences.” 

That is so true. The film's Millennium Education Reform Act came out of fear and hate, and then built a larger culture of fear and hate, one that would swallow the next generation of Japanese youngsters.

My closing thought about Battle Royale?  

To quote a survivor of the battle to the death, “it’s beautiful…even though it’s where everybody died.”

1 comment:

  1. Wow, a great examination of this film. Your cprrilations to cram school really work for the film. I didn't connect them when I watched it. I found the film to have a lot of satirical moments in it too, with a pitch black stripe of humor running down it. All in all, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and yeah I think I liked it more than "The Hunger Games". Thanks for the review!