Thursday, January 5, 2012

Battle Royale (2000)

Battle Royale
Dir. Kinji Fukasaku

3.5 out of 5

This is what tough love looks like in the dystopian near-future of Battle Royale, a chaotic, brutally violent film with a premise that remains just as controversial as when it was conceived over a decade ago. With juvenile delinquency reaching epidemic levels among Japanese youth - and sky-high unemployment removing any kind of safety valve for directionless teens - the state is forced to enact extreme disciplinary measures. Entire junior high classes are to be periodically transported to an uninhabited island, equipped with a variety of weapons, and encouraged to slaughter their classmates. The last boy or girl standing at the end of three days is the winner of the "game" (all contestants are executed if there's more than one survivor). The prize is freedom. And you thought dodgeball was a cruel lesson in classroom hierarchy.

What makes Battle Royale so notable, however, is not its obvious intent to shock you, but its constant attempts to move you. It's like Lord of the Flies meets John Hughes, deriving much of its gonzo energy from the superheated emotions of teenagers with a conveniently dramatic backdrop for their declarations of undying love and bitter hatred. Adolescence isn't merely a developmental stage in Battle Royale - it's a primal state. Some kids are craven, some are cunning, and only a handful truly have the will to survive. The last group includes the timid Noriko (Aki Maeda) and the sentimental Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara), whose partnership is the main throughline in the film's observation of a volatile group dynamic. Upsetting the process of natural selection are two "transfers," the psychotic Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) and the dour Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), a past "winner" who seeks revenge against the game's authorities and feels a duty to protect the weaker contestants.

Director Kinji Fukasaku is excellent at constructing tense situations that inevitably explode in a fountain of blood and hormones. More ponderous are recurring flashbacks and dream sequences that attempt to lend meaning to the carnage, but ultimately just muddle the film's message. Battle Royale is not a film that has much claim to gravitas, but that doesn't stop it from trying. Even the nihilistic former teacher-turned-warden played by Takeshi Kitano is dealing with family issues when he's not dispensing perfectly droll safety instructions to the doomed students. That the movie is thwarted from achieving its greater dramatic ambitions by its intrinsic dark humor is something of a blessing. Surely we aren't meant to take this shit seriously - that much is clear from the opening title cards - yet perhaps that misguided insistence on grounding an absurdly violent exploitation film in recognizable angst is what makes Battle Royale a singularly unsettling experience.

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