Published Feb 01, 2002Sex and violence in Asian cinema is no anomaly and film goers should not need festival specials or the praise of European and North American filmmakers to be reminded of how Asian cinema has walked uncharted territory. Maybe the problem has to do with issues of distribution and what gains credibility as an original work as a result. Perhaps long before it was tenable, Japanese director Nagisa Oshima made "Empire of the Senses" - an engaging and visually arresting film exploring the connections between sex, eroticism and death. Though released in 1976, the film remained banned for a significant length of time. Veteran Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku similarly, is no stranger to violence of the most extreme nature. An incredibly prolific director who can count "Battle Royale" as his 60th film in a career that spans over 30 years, Fukasaku is better known for his nihilistic yakuza films, which sit somewhere between art-house and B-grade genre distinctions. The comparisons to Sam Fuller may not be unfounded - a director whose post World War II work was packed to the brim with sexual ambiguity, self-serving capitalists and fears of communism.
The war analogy and Fukasaku's own insistence on reading "Battle Royale" as a parable or a fairy tale are undeniable frames of reference in watching the film. The premise is utterly simple especially for anyone more recently weaned on reality TV. A Japan of the near future is in post-depression slumps and kids in elementary schools are violently responding to the state of affairs imposed upon them by their supposed superiors. The solution is so simple it seems banal: in conjunction with the military the school system enforces the Millennial Reform School Act, aka Battle Royale Act. By this law, a class is randomly selected from junior high schools and sent to an evacuated island devised just for the purpose. Armed with army kits with varying degrees of weaponry and supplies, the kids must kill each other off in three days until only one is left to survive - the winner. Any more left alive, and the explosive device collars they are all attached with will explode.
Beat Takeshi plays morose teacher Kitano who is in charge of the class he taught not long ago. Pummelled along with the military band-like score of Masamichi Amano, "Battle Royale" relentlessly forges ahead from death after death where incredibly contrived but entirely believable adolescent declarations of loyalty and love are suddenly replaced by mistrust, vengeance and death. From the onset, our sentiments are clearly directed. For example, an instant attachment is formed with Shuya - played by Tatsuya Fijiwara - and Aki Maeda's Noriko. The other students are played out more as clique cliches - the bitch who sleeps with other people's boyfriends, the geek, the reject and loner, the sweet girl, the tough girl, the anarchist activists who are determined to beat the newest devise of the system. But it is Shuya and Noriko along with the mysterious "transfer" student Kawada played by Taro Yamamoto, who are given greater depth and whose emotions reflect the pained struggle between sticking to what is ethical, whilst fighting to survive a brutal game.
Many critics have labelled "Battle Royale" a nihilistic film that reveals a dystopic world where trust is a hard-won virtue. That seems unlikely if one considers the fact that Fukasaku has always maintained a tendency to pull back from the brink of nihilistic doom with explicitly redemptive moments in his previous works. "Battle Royale" is no different and its redemption almost seems sentimental, which somehow manages to sit snugly with all the brutality preceding it. It is less a cynical examination of how morally bankrupt Japanese society - particularly its youth - has become, and more a means to push the simmering tensions over the edge in order to ask: then what happens? The film is as much a pensive examination of how war forces the reality of death and national loss upon the psyches of its younger population, as it is a mocking dark parody of an education system that has long lost its thread of common sense. This is why the ridiculously over-the-top score sits in contradiction to images of blood, death and murder and even leads to moments of uncomfortable laughter. In an immediate sense, Fukasaku is parodying those old war propaganda films with their glorious music, images of the national flag inter-cut with coffins and guns. Equally, the film opens with an instructional video in which an irritatingly energetic woman decked out in glitter, glossy lip stick and trendy teen wear explains the rules of the game. It deliberately over-accentuates the blurred distinctions between reality TV and real warfare pointing to how the latter is more and more an extended television experience. That Fukasaku chose junior high school teens heightens the sense of urgency because it draws open attention to how the same forces that drive competitive education systems and capitalist economies, also drive the desire for warfare.
More importantly, as film critic Peter Bradshaw has pointed out, "Battle Royale" articulates a particularly Japanese malaise - the rise and fall of what he calls an "imperial destiny," hints of which could even be found in the nameless, wandering samurai of Kurosawa's films. To try to align this with a Tarantino or similarly American film would be to miss the particular nuances of the social context to which Fukasaku is pointing.