Disharmony, civil unrest and student violence? No, it’s not the latest headlines but Kinji Fukasaku’s final offering to the world of cinema – Battle Royale, now on Blu-ray thanks to Arrow Films and Cult Labs.
One dead, 41 to go! As far as action films go that’s a pretty bold tagline, it tells viewers exactly what they want to know, namely that there’s going to be a decent body count! Battle Royale marked Japanese film director Kinji Fukasaku’s (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) 60th feature film and regrettably also his last (though obviously that isn’t counting the 2003 sequel, during the early production of which he died and the project was to be completed by his son, Kenta, who wrote the screenplay for this film). Perhaps best known for his frantic yakuza tales of bloodshed in the 60s and 70s, Battle Royale represents what, on the face of it, might seem an odd project for an aging director, but once you see the themes of struggle and frenetic violence that underpin his most accomplished works the narrative found here starts to make far more sense as an apt project for his skill-set.
Often mistaken for being based, or even inspired by the manga of the same name, partially because it has proved so successful and an equally relevant version of the story (though not in its bastardised US-tinged translated incarnation) as it should be, given it is penned by the same author, the film was adapted from the 1999 novel (also called Battle Royale) by Koushun Takami. A story of a dystopian future of civil unrest where the strings holding the fabric of society together are increasingly weakened and the younger generation of the “Republic of Greater East Asia” are increasingly agitated. Amongst this cauldron of fermenting unease the government of the day establishes a new front on the war on civil disobedience, called the Millenial Educational Reform Act, otherwise known as the Battle Royale Act. It details how, every year, a class of third grade students will be picked at random, whereby they will be detained, gassed unconscious and transported to a remote island.
When they awake they are informed by their former teacher, Kitano (a cunningly thought up name for a character played by Takeshi Kitano) that they are to partake in a game of sorts. Each is now equipped with a metal collar, squint and you could almost see it as a fashion accessory from a poncy Londonboutique. However, these are far from gaudy trinkets, for if you break the rules of the game, the wearer’s fancy G-Schock-esque neck adornment will explode. In typical Fukasaku style, he wastes no time showing us the consequences of such an action, it could have been saved up for later in the film but he knows what we’re after, and the second you hear what they are intended for, ghoulishly viewers will want to see the grisly results as soon as possible, and boy they do not disappoint. Far from a simple head explosion, the type of which we’ve all seen a thousand times before, removing any semblance of human form above the shoulders in an instant and forcing inquiring young minds to pause at the right moment to actually see what the fuss was about, Fukasaku’s semtex necklaces explode inwards in a mini burst, severing the neck arteries and resulting in a gaudy spray of blood that shoots forward as the victim inevitably dies in moments rather than instantaneously. Not for the squeamish, but bloody good in every sense of the phrase!
The teenage lads and lasses aren’t entirely powerless, this being a game with rules, there is obviously a route to winning. These rules dictate that the class of 42 (rapidly 41 and the population descending faster than Rik Waller skydiving) must be whittled down to one lone survivor in a sort of knowingly orchestrated Lord of the Flies social experiment. Their adult captors have given this rabble of youngsters the choice – kill or be killed. If they choose to follow the path of conscious objection or downright wussiness it will not help them as there is a time limit – if there is no winner at the end of which, whether it be from a protest in unison not to fight or a lack of killing ability, all collars will be detonated. So, with the lines drawn, and the cold hard truth of the situation the class find themselves in they soon set off, either to plan their escape, their friends’ murders or just plain panic, their island playground of devil’s delights awaits them. But they don’t leave without one last parting gift from Kitano, each is given a knapsack with tools for them to utilise. As with the random nature of the class that was picked for the game, the items found within are similarly haphazard. In a strangely murderous lucky dip, some will find sub-machine guns whilst others may end up with a mere whistle. Right the way through the early segment of the film, in between the dark subject matter being explained and the background of the world that the characters inhabit, there is an otherworldly absurdity to proceedings that is slowly being interwoven.
Key to this sense of the blackly comic is Takeshi Kitano, a man Fukasaku so nearly worked with ten years prior to the making of this film, on what, amid a troubled production, would prove to be Kitano’s directorial debut – Violent Cop. As a teacher who is stabbed by a pupil, an act for which he gains no satisfactory retribution, he finds himself at the forefront of the operation to put these kids through their paces and introduce them to the game that is afoot. The disparity between his impotence as a teacher and his power as the gamesmaster of sorts is at the root of everything he does. Once he was powerless to control a simple third grade classroom, now when he wishes to get his point across he doesn’t shout, threaten detention or even throw a board rubber, instead he launches a knife into the forehead of an unruly girl who wouldn’t acquiesce. There’s nothing more awkwardly entrancing than Kitano’s ability, particularly since his scooter accident that affected his face, giving him a slight tic, to dish out uber-violence in between moments of seeming completely disinterested in the act itself. It’s as if he is outside of himself when the act if perpetrated, he looks askew at people, face twitching and in his own way is every bit as transfixed as we the viewers are by the result of his actions.
The weird streak of comedy found within absurdity and fatalism, that started with the randomness of the class being picked and the tools that were dished out, is continued as the pupils split off. Some form factions intent on seeing out the game or proactively beating it, whilst others follow a lone path intent on winning at all costs. Almost like a Takashi Miike version of The Bash Street Kids, there is horror and tragedy in equal parts amongst this class. Mitsuko is the evil temptress who utilises her sexuality and already lax morals to get ahead, jailbait, ruthless and cunning; she is the epitome of the twisted promiscuous girl that your mother warned you about. Elsewhere the tech geeks set about holing up while they use their skills to try to beat the game and survive in unison. There’s the athletic girl, a tale of love unacted upon, a bitchy group of girls that meet a sticky end amid distrust and confusion. The central pairing, our protagonists and ultimately those we are intended to root for are Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara in his breakthrough year, he’d go on to star in the fan-favourite Death Note live adaptations) and Noriko, childhood sweethearts desperate to survive together. At one point or another they cross the paths of several of the other groups and, like debris caught in a giant tornado, struggle to steady themselves amid the carnage and stay together. The main obstacles, other than their fellow classmates, are two transfer students, Shogo Kawada and Kazuo Kiriyama (both played by actors in their twenties, but they seem nowhere near as out of place as the average thirty-something in an American teen drama). This pair turn out to have similar initial motives, but use their current situation to altogether different ends. If there is one problem with the casting it is arguably Fujiwara who, though good, looks every inch the floppy-haired boy-band member and exudes a clean-cut softness (not helped by the actor’s admission that he cried when reading both the novel and the script). It aids the distinguishing of himself from Shogo, as they are two figures following similar paths in many ways mirrored by past and potential future tragedy, but ultimately you can’t escape the fact that Taro Yamamoto as Kawada (though obviously his age lends a certain gravitas – he assumed he was auditioning for the role Kitano ended up playing because of his increased years on the high school kids) portrays an infinitely more intriguing and iconic character.
Fukasaku weaves together a host of separate stories, all may seem based around the age group he is depicting, but on closer inspection they are far more universal tales. Trust, friendship, violence, betrayal, honour and downright murderous intent are all covered in one way or another, but it is the manner in which they prove connected that makes this a far better narrative than the quasi-exploitation nature of the synopsis. Students killing each other, buckets of blood and a high body count are distinctly B-movie, but the director manages to not only hold the strands of the narrative together but also inject enough style to make this a visually arresting experience. He doesn’t simply use heavy rock beats when dishing out the punishment but instead finely hones the pace, creating a wonderful ebb and flow to the moments of violence, by utilising an eclectic mix of music, from classical to some truly stunning original compositions by Masamichi Amano. When placed in tandem with the cinematography and the direction/ editing, that throughout the duration make sure that there are enough iconic shots at exactly the right crescendo moments, as a combination they raise this far above the pulp nature of the basic blurb. At the climax of a pitched battle, the music swells and the camera moves in to pick out Kazuo Kiriyama (played by Masanobu Ando – Sukiyaki Western Django), lifting his head, against a background of fire in the night sky, blood pouring from his eyes – you can’t fail to be impressed by the scene as being both visually striking and just downright stirring.
On the three disc set, limited to a run of just ten thousand (bumped from the initial five thousand due to the overwhelming popular demand), Arrow Films and Cult Labs have given us not only the theatrical cut but also the director’s cut. The latter runs at an extra eight minutes longer and fleshes out a few of the characters and their motivations a little better, such as Mitsuko. Some may argue that in the case of the evil temptress less is more and the machinations and what formed her character should be left to the imagination but the additions aren’t simplistic (it’s not as if he’s merely telling the world Hannibal Lecter was a troubled young man!) and don’t follow the route of many extended cuts of more just for the sake of it. The additions are atmospheric and in some cases heighten the aftermath of the violence, making for a slightly more sombre experience. In total the increased running time has been utilised by Fukasaku to throw in a bit more
“42 junior high students – dead”
It’s bloody, brutal and downright brilliant – Battle Royale has lost none of its edge and with Arrow Films giving us the choice of two alternate cuts, its lease of life is certainly longer than a student from Class 3B!
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