Thursday, April 1, 2010

REVIEW: Battle Royale

Battle Royale
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Year 2000

Battle Royale is a movie you will probably never see remade in the US and that's a very good thing. This  Japanese film, that came out in 2000, is in a league of its own, showcasing a plethora of casual violence that splashes across the films entire length. If re-envisioned in the States, it would be censored and toned down to the point that it would be a shred of its former self. Our over censored pampering here in the US is a sad state of affairs, but thank god Japan has the balls to bring us a film that doesn't hold back for one second and knows how to bring the pain when it comes to stories with a brutal edge.

The film is set in a not to distant future, where the Japanese government has enacted a revolutionary law called the BR Act, or Battle Royale Act. This act was formed because the economy of Japan was on the verge of collapse, the unemployment rate was skyrocketing, and schools were running rampant with violence and student uprisings against their teachers. The Battle Royale Act says that one class will be picked at random through a lottery, where they will be taken to an island and fight to the death leaving one person left standing. Nifty.

The film starts off right at the end of one of these games to the death. We are shown a blood covered creepy looking girl smiling at the screen as TV reporters try to interview her. It's a great way to set up the movie and inject the tone that this film will stay on for its entire 121 minutes. (Director's Cut)

Well, if that isn't just the cutest and creepiest thing I've ever seen.

We are then introduced to the next class to be chosen for the BR act. They're a group of forty two 9th graders and just like any group of kids, they have clicks between the cool kids, the jocks, the nerds, and everything in between. They are all on a bus and think that they are on a field trip, but little do they know they're being transported to an island where they will be forced to fight their best friends.

And they seemed like such a happy group.

Before a toxic gas is released to knock out all the kiddies so they can be transported without knowing, we are introduced to our central characters. We have Shuya Nanahara the hero with a heart of gold, played by Tatsuya Fujiwara and his best friend's secret crush, the helpless Noriko Nakagawa played by Aki Maeda. These two become the central focus throughout the film as they try to come to terms with what his happening around them. Both actors do their part to perfection and react accordingly for the situation they're in.

Our two stars in their matching uniforms. Ah the memories.

As they come to, they find that they are in an abandoned school surrounded by armed soldiers. They watch as their teacher, played by the legendary Takeshi Kitano or 'Beat' Takeshi as he's otherwise known, comes into the room and starts explaining with great detail about the horrible situation that they're in. A few of the students try to fight back but the soldiers with their guns persuade them to sit down and listen to their instructions.

Beat Takeshi says, school's in suckas!

They are shown a video that gives them all the information that they'll need in order to play the game. The host of the video is strangely perky as she describes the collars on their necks as being bombs that will activate if you're in a restricted coordinate on the map. The video is actually pretty entertaining and brings a humorously cheerful view to the vile game of kill or be killed.

If you die you are a LOSER.

Of course one of the students, Nanahara's best friend, finally snaps and says screw you and tries to punch out the teacher. This worthless gesture is answered by a press of a little red button that sets the students collar to beeping and blinking. The student pleads for help to his fellow classmates, but they all push him away in order to not be next to him when the bomb goes off. Our main character Nanahara tries to get to his friend, but everyone is holding him back so he doesn't get blown up too. This is where the fireworks go off and where the game becomes strikingly real for these students. This is also our first look at how gory this film is and what limits they're willing to break through in order to let the blood flow.

Poor Yoshio wasn't careful when shaving for the first time.

The 42 students are then called off by name, given a bag with select supplies and a mystery weapon, and then sent off out into the wild to begin the game. During this name call, we get to see all of the students and get to briefly know their personalities. There's the scared shitless ones that are crying, the two macho exchange students that seem raring to go, the loving couples that cling to each other not wanting to let go, and the close knit group of girls that huddle together in the back of the room each squealing when their name is called. It's a pretty interesting scene and a nice way for the audience to peer into the relationships that all the characters have with each other.

Didn't take them long to get into the game.

The first night is a doozy and there is a substantial body count by morning's light. One of my favorite scenes on this first night is when the couple in love decide that they'd rather kill themselves then kill each other. They choose to jump off a cliff then to play the game any further and it really shows the dire situation that these kids are in. It's another one of those moments when you ask yourself, what would I do in this situation? Would I be willing to kill my best friend or the person I love in order to save my own life? I of course would have probably tried to take some of those soldiers out rather then give in so easily, but I understand how their 'young love' minds thought that this was the best decision to make.

Each morning, their teacher gets to wake them up with the sounds of classical music while reading off the list of the deceased. It's a cheerful announcement and gives a bit of dark humor to the film. At this point in the film, Nanahara and Noriko have decided to stay together and try to persuade the rest of the class to stop fighting each other. They soon come to find that this is easier said then done, because it seems that a large percentage of their class is enjoying the game too much.

Nanahara is trying to figure out how he's going to get out of this mess.

Now, I've read the novel that this film is based on by Koushun Takami and it's just wonderful. It really goes in depth about what the students are going through and fleshes out the relationships that they had. I actually read the novel after watching the film and it was a pretty interesting experience, because I had the vivid images of Fukasaku's vision in my mind. Fukasaku has done an amazing job bringing these characters to life and he captures the essence of the book perfectly. I've never watched a movie that so closely followed its source material before, proving that Fukasaku at the ripe age of 70, still had what it took to make a compelling and thought provoking film. But back to the story.

Our main characters eventually meet up with one of the exchange students, named Shogo Kawada played by the bandana wearing Taro Yamamoto, and he tells them that he survived one of the previous games and he'll help them survive this one. Though it sounds suspicious they decide that their best chance is to stick with Kawada.

The calm before the storm known as
Kazuo Kiriyama, the exchange student from hell.

There are some great characters in this film that really shine when they come on screen. There is Mitsuko Soma, played by the hellish Ko Shibasaki, the sickle wielding popular girl who uses her looks to seduce her classmates before she slits their throats. Shibasaki does an excellent job showing just how evil she can be.

Then there's the athletic Takako Chigusa, played by Chiaki Kuriyama, who you might have seen in Kill Bill: Volume 1. She played the ball and chain twirling Gogo Yubari that put the hurting to Uma Thurman's character in the final battle at the House of Blue Leaves. Here she has a sad tale about not finding love until it's too late.

Last and definitely not least is the pure evil exchange student named Kazuo Kiriyama played by the sleek and super cool Masanobu Ando. He is as ruthless as you can get, taking out each student one by one as if he was stepping on an insect. You can see that he has no remorse in his actions and that he just really enjoys the thrill of the kill. Ando does the character justice, giving him that off kilter appearance of a crazy person, high on a bloodlust romp.

Paranoia's a bitch, making you shoot just about anyone.

There are some wonderfully creative scenes in this film that display the heightened sense of paranoia each character is experiencing. One of the best scenes in my opinion is what plays out at the lighthouse. There are a group of girls that plan on forgetting about the game and living the last few days of their life like nothing is going on. They hold up in a lighthouse and try to live out a peaceful life. After an injured Nanahara is separated from Noriko and Kawada, he makes his way to the lighthouse and the girls take him in and try to soothe his wounds. They set him up in the lighthouse and lock the door, not knowing if he is one of the students that is playing the game.

There is much distrust in one of the girls because she witnessed an incident earlier in the film where Nanahara was defending himself from an attacker and accidently killed the boy. The girl believed that he killed him on purpose and she plots to poison the food that they are making for Nanahara. Inadvertently her plan goes horribly wrong when one of the girls takes a sample of the food and begins convulsing on the floor until death takes her. All of the girls jump up accusing the other one of trying to poison the others. They all begin pulling out their guns and start shooting holes in each other. After only a few minutes, everyone is dead accept for the one girl that plotted the whole poisoning. 

She feels horrible for what transpired and climbs to the top of the lighthouse and throws herself off, landing on the unforgiving rocks below. Now that's one hell of a scene.

What a hell of a way to go.

The whole idea of this game is quite intriguing, because it's punishing the violence that has irrupted in the school system by more violence. The actions that these students are taking on the island are far worse then anything that had transpired in school, and it makes you think that maybe the government has gone off its rocker to let something like this occur.

A large majority of these students are decent kids, case in point, Nanahara and Noriko. They've done nothing wrong. They were just in the wrong class at the wrong time. Knowing this fact makes us root for both those characters to find a way off this horrible island and maybe stick it back to the government that put them there in the first place.

Nanahara is finding it hard to have a good time on his field trip.

This film, though dark in tone, is beautifully shot. Kinji Fukasaku uses the remote island setting to the fullest and reviles in showcasing its natural splendor. The huge open vistas of the rolling hills and the expansive cliff faces of the island are all shot with a loving eye, giving us as the viewer a wonderful location to marvel at. Some of the most interesting scenes come about from the location that they take place in, such as the previously mentioned scene at the lighthouse. Every locale has a personality of its own and melds perfectly with the dramatic scene it is associated with.

A beautiful shot of the lighthouse at sun rise amidst
the bloody massacre that raged on during the night.

I love the way that Kinji frames his shots and uses every ounce of a location when he proceeds to film. I've been meaning to check out his Yakuza Papers series that he began making in 1973 seeing that one of his last films is so masterfully shot. After making such a bold epic as Battle Royale, I'm now intrigued with the idea of discovering his other masterpieces, hoping that they hold up as well as his senior effort.

He has produced such a spectacle with Battle Royale, that I wish we could have been given more, yet he died only a few years after making this film. I've heard that the only thing that he truly wanted to do with his life was make movies until his death and that's exactly what he did. What a great bookend to a career that has lasted over three decades. His contributions will never fade and he will always be remember as being one of those great directors that brings fresh and raw new ideas to a medium that so desperately needed it.

Bob Ross would have put a few happy little trees
to brighten up the landscape, but this works too.

Battle Royale is a movie that really rocks you out of your seat, showing you what people are capable of when pushed to their limits and threatened with preserving their survival. It's an allegory about our society and how we've been so adept at killing each other and reveling in the violence of our culture,  that we've possibly lost our purpose. It presses the questions of when will too much be enough and what would we do to reverse the problem if violence is all we know. Can you cure violence with violence or do we become the very thing we are trying to destroy.

Interesting questions all, but I think the heart of the matter and what I most enjoy about this movie is that it tells a story that we've never seen before on this kind of scale. It's an uncensored view into a world that is horribly callus and cold. One that is, as yet, a fantasy, but the way that it's presented in this film, a not so distant fantasy that threatens to come unto our world. The way each student deals with these situations is a great character study in itself and a point that greatly increases the level of respect that I have for this film. 

It has the guts, it has the glory, it has the balls, and it has the skills to make a complete package that really shines like no other as a cinematic gem. This has to be seen at least once, just for the fact of showing what can be possible if a director and a concept are given full control to make a film that's as bold as it is beautiful.

5 out of 5 stars                A Bloody Good Masterpiece!

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