Monday, May 05, 2008
Battle Royale (2000)
(Image from Wikipedia)
Battle Royale (2000)
In the near future, Japan faces a social crisis with mass unemployment and uncontrollable student hooliganism. The solution? The Battle Royale act, which basically makes an example of unruly school children by throwing a class onto an island for three days, with each student armed with a weapon of some sort and a basic survival kit. The rules are simple - at the end of the three days only one person can remain alive and standing; if there's more than one, they all die. Their locations are tracked at all times, and leaving the island is impossible. Additionally, to make things interesting, every few hours parts of the island are added to an ever growing list of 'danger zones' that cannot be entered, effectively herding the survivors closer and closer together.
The movie depicts the game being played out by one particular class that comprises the usual assortment of typical teens replete with friendships, rivalries, and cliques. There are also intermittent flashbacks that delve into the history of some of the characters that are fairly important in explaining their behaviour on the island. As the game begins the students break off into factions and, with survival at stake, find that killing each other comes fairly naturally. The focus is mainly on four characters - Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), the class teacher who hates his students after he was stabbed by one of them, nice guy Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and his girlfriend Noriko (Aki Maeda), and Shogo (Taro Yamamoto), a survivor from a former game. There are of course many other varied characters as well, many of whom meet gruesome ends.
'Battle Royale' is, as you can imagine, a fairly unique film - it's like a satire of reality television taken to the extreme, with a helping of social commentary on the fragility of human relationships and our capacity for violence. Although, mostly it's an entertaining free-for-all full of mayhem. It's hard to say if the behaviour of the characters is realistic; when your life is on the line and there's only one way out, who can say how far one will go? Perhaps I too would run at my colleagues with a crazed expression swinging whatever weapon I had (wait, I'd definitely do that). The film handles this question head on by having different people take different approaches - some are outright killers, others huddle together in fear; some try to unite everyone, while others stick close only to those they care about; and some take themselves out of the equation voluntarily - but almost every character inevitably ends up knee deep in violence due to the unavoidable suspicion, misunderstanding, and fear that accompanies their situation.
The performances of the kids are quite good, but this isn't really an actor friendly drama - much of it is focused on carnage, and there is plenty of that to go around as they start to off each other in fairly imaginative ways. It's violent and completely un-PC (school kids and violence? check!), which is part of what makes it so much fun. The other factor that makes it a fine piece of entertainment is that it's quite gripping; as the three day deadline approaches the body count piles up, with familiar characters being dispatched regularly and often quite abruptly and unceremoniously. There's a large cast, but each of them is distinctive enough to make him or her recognisable and the story comprehensible - though you probably won't remember most of their names. Since most of the film involves kids running around amidst foliage there isn't much to say about production values, but the film is quite slickly put together and often quite over the top.
This is one of those films that you feel kind of ambivalent about enjoying, since at its heart it's pure grand guignol. But it's a well made and entertaining one that has a little bit of substance in there amidst the chaos. I enjoyed 'Battle Royale' as much as I expected I would, and I suspect that most people will be able to predict their enjoyment of the film based on the premise alone.