Wednesday 29 May 2013

Battle Royale (2000)


In an interview back in 2010, Wes Craven was asked, given his experience of scaring kids in film throughout the decades, what he thought it was that scared kids today. He answered that what scared kids remained the same pretty much regardless of time: “Adults. Incompetent parents, police that don’t understand what’s really going on.” And though this question was relating more towards his film My Soul to Take (which is just… just terrible), he’s not wrong with regard to what scares kids. Everyone, regardless of age, is afraid of being subjected to a stern authority against which they have no power (look at the works of Kafka or Dostoyevsky for better ruminations on that subject), but kids (as well as the elderly) are the ones that get the rawest end of that problem. Being left to the whims of authority, which is effectively everyone above their age, they end up feeling the brunt of whatever rules are put upon them, with no say as to how fair or arbitrary they may be. And if those rules start to push them in a terrible, even dangerous direction, what can they do but get pulled along? If there is one director in the world who understood this notion better than anyone, it’s not Craven… it’s Kinji Fukasaku… and he gave us Battle Royale.

It's the beginning of the 21st Century, and the economy of Japan is near a total collapse. Employment rates have crashed, students have begun boycotting their classes and crime rates are rising. To deal with this issue, the government approves a new law: the Battle Royale Act. One class is randomly selected and the students are taken to an island, are each given a weapon and three days to kill each other off. A new class of 42 has been selected, and only one student can survive.

The choices of project that director Kinji Fukasaku’s made over his roughly 40-year film career have much to do with experiences from his youth, specifically during World War II. Barely aging in the double digits by the time the war started, Fukasaku found himself working in a munitions factory when his class was drafted into aiding the war effort in 1945. Being a munitions factory, this was, of course, a target for Allied air raids. On one of these raids, the factory was hit, with Fukasaku and his classmates getting caught in the crossfire, and many ultimately being killed. Fukasaku himself said that he and some others survived only by literally hiding under the corpses. At 15 years old, Fukasaku had to help dispose of the bodies of his classmates, some of whom he didn’t even get a chance to know. Suddenly aware of what he believed were lies told by the Japanese government, from this point on, Fukasaku held a deep distrust and hatred of authority, and this would then be reflected in his subsequent film career. He spent much of his career making period samurai films, or focusing on post-war Yakuza stories (it was he who brought us the Battles Without Honour and Humanity films), but always maintained a focus on the struggling underdog, often a former soldier or ex-con. Perhaps his most notable of films for the “underdog going against authority” tale from this period of high output is 1972’s Under the Flag of the Rising Sun, in which a widow attempts to discover the truth behind her husband’s death during the war from Japanese government officials.

Fast-forward nearly thirty years and we find ourselves at the film to be considered today, Battle Royale, the one that would act as both the film that brought renewed interest in Fukasaku as a filmmaker, as well as Japan as a serious filmic entity, but also as the last film the man would complete under his own steam, sadly dying mid-production of the sequel Battle Royale II: Requiem.

However, there is a reason that Battle Royale was key in bringing attention back to Japanese cinema with such force, and by extension the whole resurgence of interest in Asian cinema in general… Battle Royale is a goddamn masterpiece.

Instead of his usual look back into the past, Fukasaku went into a not-too-distant future by taking on the film adaptation of the novel by Koushun Takami, published in 1999. Despite (or perhaps because of) some controversy on its release, the novel became a surprise bestseller, and the next year saw its adaptation into both a manga series (by Takami himself) and the feature film we look at today. The script was written by Kenji Fukasaku’s son, Kenta, which makes some degree of sense for a couple of reasons. On a practical level, a story that follows a group of post-millennial teenagers would perhaps pose something of a challenge to a man of nearly 70 years of age to maintain a sense of verisimilitude. Though he may have held a strong spiritual connection to youth in some way, that doesn’t mean he would necessarily be able to bring that to the page. As such, having his son Kenta as the screenwriter helps to bridge the generation gap between the director and the characters. And the characters are vital in this film.

I get the feeling that it was very important to Kenji Fukasaku that the audience understand these characters, or that we at least take something from them, that they resonate somewhere with us. This should of course be of great importance to all filmmakers and storytellers, but it would be of particular importance to a man who had lost classmates under terrible circumstances without getting that chance. As such, we get a little bit from almost every character, which is something considering how many of them there are. We get something about their family life, their hopes, their relationships. You get to see how these people react when they are all given permission to kill, and the reasons why they might want to. One of my favourite aspects of the film is to see how some characters instantly go looking for their friends, or even the one from their class they really liked in the hope of protecting them, even dying with them. It’s rather affecting to see just how some of them won’t give themselves over to the darkness of their situation, choosing to be better than that. It’s almost a final act of defiance against the adults who put them there. Were I ever to be in that situation, I wonder if I'd be the same as them... I certainly hope so.

Another reason it works nicely to have Fukasaku Sr. and Jr. working on this film together is that it also serves as a nice undercurrent to a major theme of the film: that of parental relationships. Several characters have an interesting, even defining relationship with a parent, or parental figure, such as Nanahara’s emotional baggage from his mother’s abandonment and his father’s suicide; Mimura’s relationship with his soldier uncle; and Kawada’s repeated, if conflicting references to his father being the reason he’s so good at medical care and cooking. Which rather brings us to the most visible parent in the film… Kitano.

Former teacher to the class, now the instructor of the program and the man overseeing this horrific ordeal, Kitano, played by the almighty Takeshi Kitano in some sort of twisted version of himself (you know Takeshi's Castle? Yeah, same guy). He is really the only adult we spend any time with over the course of the film. A former teacher, abused and belittled by his students, as well as his own child, he is effectively our model of authority in the film. And, despite what he becomes, there are times when he does garner our sympathy. He shows up to teach the children, only to be greeted by a message on the board informing him his students took the day off because they wanted to. On leaving the classroom, he is attacked by one of the students, slashed on his behind with a knife. It’s hard to not feel something for the guy, to consider that all he may have wanted was to help educate and guide the youth of Japan, only to be rejected in a manner most callous. Indeed, that’s how Nakagawa sees him, a man cast aside for no reason other than wanting to help. At one time, as we see in flashback, it would seem that they look to have been friends of a sort – Nakagawa seeing a lonely man in need of company; Kitano seeing a compassionate girl, and a hope for the future. However, Kitano ultimately goes too far in his disconnection and revulsion with the others of Nakagawa’s generation. It doesn’t help that his relationship with his own daughter, whom we know only as a voice who also clearly hates him, has compounded his loathing of the younger generation. He’s like Lee J. Cobb’s Juror no.12 in 12 Angry Men, disgusted and angry with his own child, desperate to take it out on someone else, only taken to a horrifying extreme. The most visible authority figure in the film is ultimately shown to be a full-blown sadist, one of who gleefully sends children he knows off to slaughter each other, and who even has no compunction about killing them himself. He is a monster, but rather unsettlingly a monster that you can understand where he came from.

It’s very important that we understand, to some degree at least, the one who sends these children to die. In the preamble to the film, we are told that by the point of the film’s temporal setting, Japan’s status as a financial superpower in the world has, effectively, come to an end. The bubble has burst, and the future of the nation’s inhabitants is no longer secure. Jobs are becoming scarce, money is becoming short, and the hope that may have been held by those growing up in this climate has now all but dried up. Despondent and angry at a seemingly clear indication that there is nothing left for them, the young abandon their education and career prospects for the simple nihilistic thrill of enjoying what they can while it still exists. As it is, this is a situation that was pretty much directly influenced by reality in Japan. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Japan’s economic growth was sustained by the asset price bubble, where stock prices and real estate value was inflated to such a point that it ultimately burst, plunging Japan into a recession that it took over a decade to finish dropping into (look into Japan’s so-called “Lost Decade” for more on that). Jobs were lost, money was lost, hope for the future was diminished. It’s exactly this kind of post-Lost Decade world where the world of Battle Royale takes place. This fits well into Fukasaku’s overall body of work as he has had a preoccupation with what kind of future can be formed in the ashes of a faltering, apparently hopeless governing authority.

This not only offers a very bleak vision of a very dark future, but it also offers an interesting take on politics, specifically the value of a proportional response to a given problem (and yes, I basically just lifted a line from The West Wing there). Within the world of Battle Royale, the government was faced with a particular problem: the revolt of a disaffected, dissatisfied youth. Their futures were squandered, so they responded by rejecting what future was left for them. Obviously, this would create a great sense fear amongst the older generations, since they now no longer had anyone to whom they can hand over the reigns. Along with that fear, there would be no small amount of indignation, that these young people would be so cavalier in their lack of foresight, that they would have such apparent disrespect as to give their elders the finger and invite them to spin. The response of the authorities was not a proportional one. They passed a law that allowed them to randomly select groups of children that would then be forced to murder each other, and thus solve their problem. It’s an ugly decision born of a brutal and heartless bureaucracy made way out of proportion to the problem it tries to solve. It may seem like a harsh indictment of Japanese authorities, which is perhaps why they sought to have the book, manga and film banned, not to mention the difficult transition beyond its borders. However, I’m sure Fukasaku, who you’ll remember had no love of his government during WWII, wouldn’t care too much if they took offence to that. I’m sure that was part of his point.

The influence of Battle Royale can’t really be underestimated. As previously stated, Fukasaku’s film turned a great deal of attention to the resurgence of film coming from Asia in general, wetting the world’s appetite for what it would come to get from Japan, China, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan… you get the idea. However, more specifically, the film has a profound effect on many individuals, too. Fukasaku’s son, Kenta, made his debut in the film world as writer on this film, and he would go on to make his way as a filmmaker in his own right, following with Battle Royale II: Requiem in 2003 (taking over directing duties after the death of his father), as well as several other films, like X-Cross, Black Rat and We Can’t Change the World. But, We Wanna Build a School in Cambodia. Many of the young actors in Battle Royale would go on to have further careers as actors, too. In fact, one of them would cross paths with another filmmaker who has taken a great amount of influence from Kinji Fukasaku recently… Quentin Tarantino.

After Jackie Brown’s release in 1997, it would be six years before Tarantino would return to our screens, which he ultimately did with the first part of his highly stylised samurai revenge epic, Kill Bill Vol. 1. Amongst the many now iconic aspects of that film, several things jump out immediately as being direct lines to Fukasaku. Generically, there is much drawing upon the world of samurai and Yakuza flicks, where Fukasaku spent his early career. Then, there is the casting of Sonny Chiba, a Fukasaku regular with whom he made many features (Chiba even repeats his line from Samurai Reincarnation - “If you encounter God, God will be cut.”). Further to casting, Chiaki Kuriyama, who played Chigusa in Battle Royale, also appears in Kill Bill Vol. 1 as Gogo Yubari, the psychotic bodyguard dressed in the schoolgirl’s uniform. And lest we forget, the music from the trailer that was played freaking everywhere… Battle Without Honour and Humanity by Tomoyasu Hotei, a piece which gained its title from Fukasaku’s Yakuza film series mentioned earlier. It’s worth noting at this point that, in 2009, Tarantino made a video list for Sky Movies in which he listed his favourite movies to come out since he became a filmmaker in 1992. Although most of the list is simply given alphabetically, the first film he names is his outright number 1, the film he most wishes that he had made... can you guess what that movie is? Have a watch of that video here, and definitely check out the other films on his list, too.

I’m not kidding when I say how good Battle Royale is. It works on many levels, as a horror, an actioner, science fiction, drama, thriller, even romance. Generically, it manages to run the gamut, but does so in a way that I don’t think ever feels clunky or awkward. Fukasaku keeps a firm hand on the film and, with a running time of around the two-hour mark, the film positively gallops along. The stakes are never in question, and everyone in this film sells it brilliantly.

I’m going to stop writing now, because you need to run and go watch this movie now… go… Run!

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