Battle Royale

Anyone who’s lived a little knows that the most poignant joys and despairs are small moments. Anything can set them off: a photo, an empty room, a tiny kindness, a forbidden sigh. Kinji Fukasaku proves in Battle Royale to be a master of the micro-story, the combinations of all these tiny joys and creeping terrors into one huge, fleeting, emotional whole. After decades of cultural regression, he evokes Japanese cinema’s desperate, horrific roar. It has a primal beauty, of the kind that will always be banned, repressed, misunderstood. Yes, and awed.

Kitano, played by the multitalented Takeshi Kitano, doesn’t understand kids these days. As a teacher he doesn’t expect to be respected by his “sacks of potatoes.” But even he’s surprised when he’s stabbed one day, and in the next stands in front of rows of empty desks. Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) jolts back and forth between friends and sniggering would-be lovers, still reeling from his father’s suicide, just trying to get life going again. Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) secretly loves him. She’s also the only one who comes to Kitano’s class, that last day. Kitano hates his own kid, but among the sundry romantic entanglements at work throughout the film, that momentous bond between the teacher and the girl who cared enough to come to class may be the film’s most eerily central love story. Fukasaku will put them together at the oddest times, on a dreamy shore, staring right at the camera, mouthing words that the subtitles leave without an inscription. Kitano will waft into frame like an onset director and give her an umbrella for the rain. We will always wonder what he’s thinking.

I describe Battle Royale this way because it is a story about characters, not plot. A bus picks up Kitano’s class and takes them to a military bunker on an island, but really it could be anywhere. A cheery newscaster chirps about the titular contest like a cheery guide in a video game tutorial, where each student will be released with provisions and a random weapon (“This one is SUPER lucky,” she says of a grim-looking axe). At first everyone thinks it’s a prank, and the presence of dumb ol’ Kitano gets them going into a snarky grade school broil. But their disbelief is how Fukasaku disquietingly violates our own expectations. I won’t spoil what happens, but I’ll just say that everyone will leave the briefing room believing that life isn’t a joke anymore.

As they leave, Kitano announces them by student number and name. We’re not expected to remember them all, of course, but this scene is effectively investing. No matter who dies later in the plot, this scene gives you the sense that you know them. Nothing that happens is as significant as this sense that it happens to someone. It’s not an ensemble cast in the sense that everyone’s an equal player in the drama (some will die in minutes) but Fukasaku, like all of history’s most effective agents of death, casts a wide net.

They’re fitted with surveillance collars that prevent escape and told that to leave the island, they must be the only one still alive. At first, they consider the possibility that if they all work together maybe no one has to die. But the portly class geek is blessed with a crossbow, and remembers all the swirlies and fat jokes and waits outside the bunker taking crack shots at cheerleaders (he reminds me of Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket).  From that point, the percolating fear becomes an explosion of caste warfare and vicious child’s play.

The contest transfigures from prison torture to sinister enablement, as the repressed murder fantasies of the social out-crowd lash back against the schoolgirl pretties and doe-eyed hunks. “I just didn’t want to be a loser anymore,” one of the girls says, her white panty frills seeped in blood. There’s one so afraid she accidentally poisons her best friend, and another who keeps up the friendship act to get close enough with a sickle and Taser. Perhaps most sinister, one boy relishes the idea of proving his higher class against his low-life fellow students with assertions that remind me spectrally of Columbine. Battle Royale is a blood-splattered wedding dress of beautiful carnage and personal defilement. Kitano’s death tally announcements over the island loudspeaker punctuate each sequence with a queasy epitaph (“Here’s your list of friends,” he says coolly, “in the order they died.”). The subtitle cards appear in vertical, Japanese newspaper column style. I like to think of them as calligraphic funeral banners, each with its own atrocious omen.

Shuya and Nakagawa will find help from contest-savvy Shogo Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), particularly against the wild-eyed Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), who plays it to win. They will also find comfort in each other’s arms, discovering one of those fleeting joys from their past life when a little unrequited wink set them full-on into the mystery of childhood love. Is it enough, to find that here and now? Battle Royale has a questing resolution that converts all its ultraviolence into such touching finality that it doesn’t really matter. Against such timid joy and omniscient terror, even just asking the question is enough.

Nowadays, there will be obvious comparisons between the novels by Koushun Takami and Suzanne Collins and their respective adaptations (meaning Battle Royale and the Francis Lawrence The Hunger Games films). But stealing is not so much a crime in movies as a tool of the art (“Nothing’s against the rules,” Kitano tells us). So even assuming all movies have inspirations, and looking at them on fair and even footing, there’s one overwhelming difference between the energy behind Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. It’s that while the former activated and resolved relationships through action, the latter bleats them into existence and then uses action as an obstruction. Fukasaku believes that there is great darkness and unrequited love hiding in the hearts of children, while Lawrence seems only to believe in little mini-adults with normal melodrama to unravel. None of Lawrence’s four films, of a bleary-eyed starlet staring into the horizon, twiddling with social justice and lover’s angst, could grasp one twinkle of Fukasaku’s terror, or one drop of his joy.

The Hunger Games is a whimper compared to the illicit brilliance of Fukasaku’s defiant anthem to thunderous love and quiet death and all those little moments. An unnecessary sequel would mar its memory but not its grace. Battle Royale is one of the great terrors of Japanese cinema. And it may be its most beautiful sigh.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Kinji Fukasaku

Kenta Fukasaku (screenplay)

Koushun Takami (book)

Shuya Nanahara Tatsuya Fujiwara
Noriko Nakagawa Aki Maeda
Shogo Kawada Taro Yamamoto
Kazuo Kiriyama Masanobu Ando
Mitsuko Souma Kou Shibasaki
Takako Chigusa Chiaki Kuriyama
Kitano Takeshi Kitano

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