Saturday, April 07, 2007

Battle Royale バトル・ロワイアル (Fukasaku Kinji 深作 欣二, 2000)


I've been lagging a bit in posting, for a number of reasons, but they are all extremely boring (family, work, sickness, and laziness among them.) I did manage to catch something truly bizarre and interesting out of left field the other day, a film that I had written off a few years ago without having seen it (usually a good thing), but went looking for it after having it recommended in a couple of different books: Fukasaku Kinji's Battle Royale. Fukasaku, having lived through WWII, and experienced senseless violence and innocent deaths all around him, is obviously making a political point in this still very entertaining action/adventure film. What the point exactly is, I'm not sure, but maybe a closer look will help. There will surely be spoilers here.

Battle Royale begins by showing some statistics: Japan faces %15 unemployment at the turn of the millennium, and the rebellious youth are the first scapegoats and victims of the government's reaction. It then races to a shot of various military and media figures surrounding a single, bloody, smiling girl, referred to as the "survivor". We're then in a school, and a teacher (Kitano Takeshi) is stabbed by a wild male student running through a school corridor. A female student watches in curious horror, and meets the teacher's gaze. As the film progresses, a busload of kids are drugged during their class trip, taken to a deserted island, and told that they will have to kill each other until one is left, or they will all die.

As one student after another dies at the hands of a previous friend, or foe, we see a barrage of cliches, old and new, taken to a brutal extreme. Fukasaku seems to be poking fun at some of the popular Shouju films where boys are embarrassed to talk to girls, whole plotlines revolve around whether a friend is really a friend, and rich and attractive youth walk over the modest and poor. We see double suicides, deathbed confessions, extreme loyalty, and false loyalty all play out in macabre blood splattering violence. Even in this extreme environment, with the end of their lives nigh upon them, these people cannot let go of the social constraints placed on them by tradition. But this island, much like Golding's Lord of the Flies (the film has many similarities), is also a microcosm of Fukasaku's current perception of society, greatly influenced by his war years: A government will not hesitate to sacrifice you to preserve itself.

Kitano's teacher, ostensibly in charge of the operation, seems to know this, but is so jaded and emotionless about carrying out his country's duty, that only toward the end does he falter. Whatever strange ideas possess this character remains a mystery. His obsession with the major female lead, Noriko (she seems to stand out as the most delicate and innocent of the film's female roles) also seems to lead to a dead end. Maybe more viewings will help.

But in the end, two people walk away alive, and they are wanted for murder (certainly a shot at the idea of War Crimes implicating the common soldier and letting the real criminals in charge go free in postwar Japan.) The adult world has indeed completely sold out the younger generation. In a way, this reminds me of the 50s and 60s Ampo and Zengakuren demonstrations held in Japan by the leftist student movement, and how the government eventually reigned them in by working with the dominant corporations and blacklisting those involved from eventual employment. And just as with the Zengakuren, there were martys for the cause. By blaming the youth, and their rebellious activities, the adult world can forgive itself and it's economic and social errors. Again, all these ideas are thinly veiled within an entertaining and character driven action film.

2 comments:

colinr said...

I'm glad you took the chance on Battle Royale. I liked the film very much partly because it was an action film where all the characters are ciphers, but in a good sense as they aren't just there as cannon fodder but to illustrate the different reactions and different ends they come to through their actions. I'm probably too sensitive but there were a number of times I had tears in my eyes for the waste of life, but also for the ways the characters individualised themselves, and since we didn't see any of their lives before the game starts all we have to find out about them is the way they die. (This is one of the things that makes the theatrical version a bit better than the extended version, as there is the addition of a few extra scenes, including the basketball game they are on their way back from at the start of the film, that only adds minimal and obvious characterisation and so detracts a little from the original film)

In particular I was moved by the death of the sweet girl by having her throat cut after the tense scene between her and her former friend near the beginning; the lover's leap from the cliff; the scene with Chiaki Kuriyama ("come at me! I will resist you with all my might!") and her death on top of the dam; the quick death of the boy searching everywhere for a girl that he's never had the nerve to speak to and then the girl herself; and of course the senseless lighthouse massacre which has steadily built the tension to breaking point.

It does seem like the schoolkids just go along with their teacher's orders and just start killing each other rather than trying to find a way not to do it, and I wonder whether that is a comment on the social system, of doing what you are told rather than what is actually the best thing to do - that through trying to endear yourself to superiors through playing along with their rules just to survive, you actually end up killing yourself?

I agree with the Lord of the Flies comparison but strangely I find Battle Royale to be a much more pessimistic piece of work. While Lord of the Flies could show the savagery of group interactions that people keep held in check through the mask of civilised behaviour, the events in Lord of the Flies could be interpreted as only occurring in these types of exceptional circumstances amongst children who haven't yet learnt how to behave properly and that this type of thing would not happen if they had been older and wiser (the fun filmic contrast would be to see how the Swiss Family Robinson family with its responsible adult influence manages to build a tree house wonderland!)

However in Battle Royale all the survivor of the game has to look forward to is the chance to enter a corrupt adult society. The more 'adult' emotions of loyalty, honour, love, responsibility, co-operation seem to only be played out through the kids, however fleetingly before they go back to killing each other! Contrasted with Kitano's rather childish behaviour: his crush on Noriko; his lying back on his chair watching the events occuring on the island while eating cookies (is this a comment on how adults complain about children being addicted to television and junk food and not going out and getting enough exercise?(!)) and his inability to talk to his daughter. It perhaps makes sense that he creates the childish painting at the end glorifying one character while revelling in the gory deaths of everyone else!

He is just as trapped by the social constraints as the kids are, and that is one of the reasons while I quite like the illogical nature of the Battle Royale game itself – I get the impression that someone else thought up the game and the rules for their own reasons that might not have had everything to do with just the hooliganism of young people. For example it might just have been a population control measure that got voted through under a ‘teaching hooligans a lesson’ lobby – or maybe the television networks got together with a couple of powerful politicians to create the game and the ‘teaching kids a lesson’ is just the mechanism used to keep the game going. So in a way I think the Battle Royale game is meant to seem a bit strange and all the adults we see, from Kitano to the soldiers manning the place don’t seem to be the ones in power, the people who actually made the decision of what happens in the game. Instead they are just civil servants, having to make sure the event runs properly.

I would be interested to hear your reactions to Battle Royale 2, as that film opens things out quite considerably, and a lot of reaction has seemed to be that it is not as successful because of this. For example the new class instead of killing each other has to lead an attack on Shuya Nanahawa’s hideout (which echoes the opening of Saving Private Ryan) and is decimated within the first quarter of the film. The film then takes a turn into explicitly discussing some of the politics and we are introduced to the actual people in power in these societies that I talked about being absent in the first film above. I thought it was a very interesting, if far more sprawling in scale, film than the first. There is also an attempt to understand the ‘strange ideas’ Kitano possessed in the first film through the sequel focusing on his daughter manipulating the class selection process in order to get herself and her class selected for the next Battle Royale.

I’d also be interested to hear your reaction to the politics of the film, from the opening terrorist attack on a high rise building to the final Afghanistan-set end! It feels a lot more heavy handed to me, and I wonder how much was planned by Kinji Fukasaku and how much was added by his son after his death.

Steven H said...

I apologize for leaving your thoughtful response in limbo for so long. I hadn't even checked my blog account.

"It does seem like the schoolkids just go along with their teacher's orders and just start killing each other rather than trying to find a way not to do it, and I wonder whether that is a comment on the social system, of doing what you are told rather than what is actually the best thing to do - that through trying to endear yourself to superiors through playing along with their rules just to survive, you actually end up killing yourself?"

I think this is a large part of the film's message. By following orders and staying in line, you're not doing yourself any favors (of course the film's version of saying this is particularly extreme.)

"The more 'adult' emotions of loyalty, honour, love, responsibility, co-operation seem to only be played out through the kids, however fleetingly before they go back to killing each other! Contrasted with Kitano's rather childish behaviour: his crush on Noriko; his lying back on his chair watching the events occuring on the island while eating cookies (is this a comment on how adults complain about children being addicted to television and junk food and not going out and getting enough exercise?(!)) and his inability to talk to his daughter. It perhaps makes sense that he creates the childish painting at the end glorifying one character while revelling in the gory deaths of everyone else!"

That makes a lot of sense. In a way Kitano seems to have rejected the adult world and embraced the child's. Wasn't there mention at some time that he had something to do with choosing that specific class to participate? I'll have to watch the film again.

I may get around to watching Battle Royale II eventually, but I have a lot on my plate before that.