June 25, 2013

2013 Blind Spots Series: Battle Royale (2000)

Battle Royale, released in 2000

What makes a society violent? Are humans by nature prone to harm each other, or does the situation determine our fate? Would any of us resort to brutal killings if forced to do so? These questions have risen frequently in this country after prominent recent examples of gun-related violence. The debate centers on whether we’re truly safer to have so many guns inside our homes. My opinions fall strongly in favor of gun control, but I’ve leave that discussion for another time. What I’m getting at is the concept of what makes a community kill each other. If inner-city schools had better funding and provided a stronger environment, teens might stop fighting and do better. However, that’s far from a sure thing. The world of Battle Royale shows us an extreme version of this type of dire scenario. Students have given up on civilized education and walked out of school. In a sense, they’ve proven that adults don’t have control if enough of them revolt. Most parents recognize this fact, but few expect 800,000 students to leave. In this film, the government decides to fight back and show the students who’s really in control. They’ve responded to their gesture by taking it a step further and enacting a new severe type of authority. It doesn’t matter whether the victims are innocent of this crime. All high-school students must pay for that insolence, and only one from the selected class will survive this ordeal.

Takeshi Kitano in Battle Royale

Battle Royale is a fantasy but has roots in Director Kinji Fukasaku’s traumatic experiences during World War II. His distrust of adults and their authority sits at the heart of this film. The tricky part is that he seems to enjoy presenting the grisly deaths. It’s hardly a clinical look at violence and functions as a survivalist action film. The subversive entertainment of watching 9th-grade students kill each other takes the story into murky territory. It relishes in showing the inventive kills and functions similar to a slasher film. While identifying with the leads who are trying to survive, we’re seeing brutal deaths constantly. Tarantino loves this film, and it’s easy to see the connection between the violence and his latest movie Django Unchained. It showed the ugly nature of slavery, but it also entertained as a revenge fantasy with outlandish deaths. These contradictions make the films intriguing but also put them in shaky moral territory. If we enjoy watching teenagers kill each other, does that indict us as an inhumane society? This is the challenge in evaluating this movie, which uses a novel premise and sharp direction to deliver a thrilling experience. It’s only when the carnage goes away that the questions appear about what makes this so enjoyable.

Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda star as Shuya and Noriko, friends who vow to stick together. There’s a possible romantic link between them, and they try to avoid conflict if they can. They’re set up as the heroes who won’t resort to brutality once the fight begins. Their entire class of 42 students was knocked out by gas and sent to a remote island. After watching a ridiculous video where an upbeat presenter talks happily after killing, they’re sent packing with a random weapon. The army leader is their former teacher Kitano (Director Takeshi Kitano), who’s still smarting after being stabbed by a former student. When a girl whispers too much, he throws a knife and kills her. This removes any thought that he’s a spineless teacher. This guy means business. Adding to the challenge are collars that will cause a bloody death if anyone gets out of line. The brazen Yoshitoki (Yukihiro Kotani) learns this the hard way and faces Kitano’s wrath for the stabbing. The frightened students rush out into the wilderness, and chaos quickly takes over for even the least imposing teens.

Battle Royale, directed by Kinji Fukasaku

Much has been written about the connections between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, and it’s hard to know how much Suzanne Collins was inspired by this film and the Koushun Takami novel. She claims to have had no knowledge when she wrote it, but there are many similarities. The movies feel very different, however. Gary Ross focused on the lead and used quick cuts to avoid the violence. Fukasaku revels in the killings and doesn’t try to develop the combatants. There are deaths by a sickle, guns, knives, and poison, plus multiple suicides. They aren’t playing to the same audience, despite having similar themes. The cynical feeling about the government resounds strongly in both works. Ross is taking a commercial approach, and he succeeds in creating an entertaining blockbuster. This film works more for a cult audience yet has strong moments. The acting is mostly forgettable and filled with stock characters when you go beyond the leads. Kô Shibasaki makes an impression as Mitsuko, a cruel girl who definitely enjoys this environment. She kills without remorse and takes delight in tormenting her classmates.

Right from the start, it's pretty clear which students are most likely to survive. Fukasaku isn't setting up a mystery and focuses instead on ratcheting up the intensity with each kill. Text on the screen describes who's perished in clinical fashion and treats the deaths like a sports game. The eliminations can happen quickly and without warning. One group of girls seems to be having a great time in a lighthouse, and minutes later they're all dead. The "transfer student" Kiriyama (Masanobu Andô) takes out a lot of students without saying a word. He's an extra factor that should make it difficult for groups to skip the violence. The challenge is to avoid numbing the audience as the body count rises. We receive a thin back story that explains Mistuko's reasons for being crazy, but it feels too obvious. The lack of character development puts us at a distance from many of the killings. Even so, there's still plenty to like with Battle Royale. It's a gutsy film that's sure to turn off many yet still provides a visceral experience. It remains a striking movie that can surprise even the most hardened viewer. It's not going to change your views, but there's enough material to leave us considering the complicated role of violence in cinema.  

12 comments:

  1. This is a film I'm planning to watch later this year as it's one of my Blind Spots for this year. I'm already half-way done as I know the next 2 that I'm going to do though I might be buying a few of my remaining assignments next month. BTW, which cut of the film did you see as I'm confused on which cut to watch?

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    1. I watched the Director's Cut since that was the only one available on the DVD. I don't think it's really necessary, though. It fleshes out the characters a bit yet also has unnecessary epilogues that end the movie on an odd note. I think either version is fine, but you don't gain much with the Director's Cut.

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  2. I've already shared my thoughts on this film and how it works as an adaptation (it doesn't). I always strongly push the book on people who claim they love this film, because it's honestly not very good at all in comparison. Only one character even comes close to being portrayed well from page to screen, and it's only if you watch the Director's Cut (and the character being Mitsuko). I just hate that the book is almost entirely a character piece and psychological thriller, and the film removes all the psychology and character building in favor of the kills. It's funny that what people love most about the film is what's only hinted at--the themes, which are infinitely stronger in the book.

    I can ramble for hours on this, and I have many times... so I'll stop. :P

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    1. Nick, I definitely need to check out the book. Your anger at the movie just makes it sound more interesting. I know that it's so different to watch a film when you've already read the source material. I think back to the '90s when I was a fan of Sphere and Congo. Granted, these Crichton novels are fairly silly and not so great, but they were decent thrillers. I was excited to see the film adaptations and then just floored by how bad they were. I couldn't believe they could mess up such film-ready material.

      I did watch the Director's Cut of Battle Royale, and the back story helped a little with Mitsuko. I feel like the explanation was rushed and too simple, but it was something at least. Were those cut from the original version?

      Thanks for the comment. I liked the movie and think it has an interesting concept, though I can recognize that there are some issues. I expect that reading the book just spotlights them even more.

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  3. I really hated this film. I saw it shortly after I started blogging, and just thought it-, well let me quote my thoughts from my review, briefly, I don't want to think too deeply about it, to come up with a new thought on it...:

    "Who exactly is this film for? Is it for Columbine-like masterminds who get their wet dream fantasies realized? Is it, for pissed-off teachers, who have similar Columbine-like fantasies about the no good, badly-behaved students? No, this doesn't feel like that. This feels like the kid who gets picked on, watches way too much professional wrestling, and wishes it were real, and that if The Rock doesn't beat the bully's ass, maybe the slutty girl who gave him chlamydia might. These thoughts kept occurring to me as I watched "Battle Royale," a movie about teenagers killing each other.... every year, a randomly-selected ninth grade grade gets put on an island, and forced to fight until there's only one survivor. If you throw in the stipulation that the survivor gets a title shot at Wrestlemania, you have yourselves a very entertaining and unpredictable little pay-per-view...."

    It goes on from there, but I thought this was garbage, and especially in light of "The Hunger Games", which I liked, barely, but it's essentially the same story done with such interesting artistry, more Shirley Jackson in nature, than the gory and graphic bloodbath this is, and actually, take real time to establish the characters, to make us care about them... I mean, "Battle Royale", really is just, get them all in the room, and let 'em kill each other. I don't think it says about society or war; I think it says something about the sickening authors/filmmakers, who thought there was some kind of depth to this. I mean, you're struggling to put it into a context, to explain it; I don't think there is one, other than the fact that it was created by somebody, who has a perverse nature in coming up with different ways of seeing teenagers kill other teenagers.

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    1. David, thanks for the extensive comment. I think the same issues that are causing me to ponder what it all means connect to your negative reaction. By the time we get to the end, questions lingered for me about the point of it all. It shows an alternative world where the adults have had enough and cruelly fight back against the teens. I know that it's a nasty movie that cares little for the characters, yet I can't help but think about how it connects to the violence we're seeing in our world. While this may not be the filmmakers' intentions (you're probably right in that regard), it still generated this reaction.

      So much of watching and writing about movies involves what you bring into the experience. There is definitely a sadistic tone to Battle Royale, yet I still found ideas to grab onto when writing this piece. That doesn't excuse it yet still made it worth seeing. I appreciate the detailed response!

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  4. Just to chime in with a different reaction, I love the movie (I've only seen the original version) and think it's better than the book (I own both).

    I was 23 or 24 when I saw this (in the cinema), and still able to identify pretty strongly with the kids over the adults--I'm not sure how I'd react to the concept if I'd come across it for the first time in motherhood. The tagline was "Could you kill your best friend?" and for me, it wasn't about the ethics of putting the kids in the situation as it was about what I would do in this situation (I thought then, and still think, that I'd be one of the suiciders).

    I'd also read Empire magazine's feature on the film, so I knew the director was influenced by his own childhood, and because of that I felt the violence had more purpose: reminding us that this kind of horror can and has existed in the world, and children aren't necessarily spared from it. That said, I found it tremendously difficult to watch and still do, but it was the second DVD I ever owned.

    Regarding the Hunger Games comparisons, I've always thought them ridiculous. Same concept, but it's a teenage variation of one that's been around for years--as Suzanne Collins was a children/YA author, no wonder she decided to make her fighters teenagers. The actual execution is also completely different--BR focuses on the whole class within the game. HG follows Katniss' fortunes in the world that has these games.

    The main thing that they have in common is that neither protagonist is obliged to kill 'a good guy' and the 'cop out' ending of multiple survivors. (The movie rather failed to deliver on its tagline.) But it's not hard to believe Collins reached that story-telling decision independently.

    The chief improvement of the Movie over the book is that the Movie didn't feel like a teenage-authored fanfiction. I don't know if it's a cultural thing, but there were several jarring portions of the book, most notably the fact that every female member of the class seemed to be secretly in love with Shuya.

    For the most part, the Movie's changes were for time constraints. The change I felt was the most detrimental was having Kazuo and Shogo be unknown to the class before the game, if only because it made Kazuo a less shocking antagonist. Of course, the book negates this itself by making Kazuo such an extreme character he's ridiculous.

    This is one of the book's problems: in Takami's devotion to character, he goes too far, rendering many of them caricatures. The film, whether by choice or necessity, only sketches most of these characters and makes them more relatable as a result. On the other hand, the novel's wealth of character detail is far from all bad, and it's definitely worth a read just for that.

    The book's ending is just terrible though. It's the same outcome as the film, but it obliges Shuya and Noriko to become full-fledged action heroes.

    I've not read the manga, though some people swear by it as the best telling of the story.

    Just weighing up the film as horror/slasher without all that baggage, I think it holds up. Great cast, great characters and great story. The lighthouse scene is a standout, but it does a good job of being a catalogue-of-deaths film without getting repetitive.

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    1. Sarah, thanks so much for the detailed comment. Hopefully it covers everything that you wanted to say (given the Blogger issues)! I haven't read the book, so it's tough for me to comment on that part of it. I'm intrigued to see what I think of it, though.

      I felt like I had to mention The Hunger Games since they're always roped together, but I agree that the comparisons don't make much sense. Collins likely drew part of her inspiration from it, but I don't feel that it copies Battle Royale.

      The movie does feel like it moves very quickly, and I think that's essential when you're talking about 42 students. My interest in the characters really varied since everything was so quick. There were some that didn't work, while others made an impression even in a few minutes. A lot was the acting, which was all over the map.

      I appreciate the extended thoughts!

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  5. I do think some of my problems with the book might come down to cultural differences. I'm not that familiar with Japanese story-telling conventions. I should also note that I have a preference for ordinary characters rather than ones with special talents/conditions etc.

    Culture (and the foreign language) also made it hard to gauge the acting in the Movie, though overall, I thought the young actors did a very good job. It would be interesting to see a Where Are They Now on them... I know the one girl was in Kill Bill but that's about it.

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    1. I checked up on the two leads and the girl who played Mitsuko (Kô Shibasaki) and all have worked steadily in movies and TV since that time. I'm not sure that's the case for a lot of the kids, but they all seem to be doing pretty well. Kô Shibasaki is one of the stars of the upcoming 47 Ronin with Keanu Reeves, so that should help her career.

      You may be right about the acting, though it's also probably because there are so many characters. Many appear at the beginning and then die, so there's little they can do.

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  6. I love this film! Actually one of the first films I reviewed. At the time, I liked it but I've grown fonder of it. I understand the Hunger Games comparison, but HG is far more tame and also focuses mostly on Katniss, while BR has two main leads but gives other characters a chance to shine. And they differ more drastically in tone.

    I was a bit pissed at the winners since they did diddly squat. Yes, I'm one of the few people I know who's openly admitted that I would be one of the killers (oh, all the side eyes). I would go all Kô Shibasaki on everybody and would have hated to see the winners be those who did not put in an effort. I think this film speaks so much about human nature.

    Everybody who's seen it asks themselves what they'd do in that situation. They place themselves in that world and in those situations. The actors just help decorate that world.

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    1. I agree that watching BR definitely causes you to consider where you'd fall. I expect that I'd act similar to the leads and just try to survive. It's hard to say for sure, but I doubt that I'd be the aggressor and go after anyone directly. The movie is good, and while it's much different than the HG, I do think there are some similarities in certain elements that are worth discussing.

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