“Fukasaku orchestrates the mayhem with a button-pushing, Nintendo-fried glee: The class of 42 boys and girls rapidly depletes, and not a single death takes place offscreen.”
– Dennis Lim, the VILLAGE VOICE
I guess we’re so used to movies not being relevant that when one is, our only response is to diminish it: snigger and make little jokes; roll our eyes at the director’s ambition; forget to buy tickets until after it’s closed. We don’t believe movies apply to real life, because every time someone says one does it winds up being just another marketing ploy. But, if critics could drop their smarmy grins and their clock-punching mentality for two hours and watch a movie while not simultaneoussly coming up with a lead paragraph and some clever verbiage then they’d have to acknowledge it: BATTLE ROYALE matters. And it’s the first movie in a long time that does.
Fertilizer is supposed to make the corn grow, but in the wrong hands it can become a bomb. Movies are a tool to entertain us, but in the right hands they can be twisted into a weapon. They can be turned against us, they can be the plastique on the foundation columns of society. They can destroy us if the person wielding them are hateful enough or disgusted enough. Fukasaku’s gleeful throat-slitter, BATTLE ROYALE, is a terrorist act, bred of his disgust at what we do to our kids.
Set “At the dawn of the millenium” which would mean this year, it’s about an education reform act where classes of ninth graders are sent to an island, snapped into exploding collars, given weapons and told to kill one another. Classroom order is thus achieved through strongarm tactics (corporal punishment proponents would be proud). The game is a media feeding frenzy, the lone survivor stands in the tv camera glare, caked with blood, mind unhinged, the center of momentary undivided attention. Then a new class is abducted, and the game begins again.
The Battle Royale is like summer camp, it’s like reform school, it’s like “Survivor”, and like those places it’s educational. The kids learn that friendship is easily replaced by the survival instinct. Like their parents before them they learn that to get along in the world they’ll have to do what they’re told, swing that bat, pull that trigger, stab that back. They learn that some of their friends who look sane are a hair’s breadth away from tumbling down into deep pools insanity. They learn that the bonds between pals, the urge to be helpful and get along, all crumble into dust when a little paranoia enters the room. They learn selfishness. They learn to do what they’re told.
Our society is founded on the notion that parents teach their children how to get along in the world. Looking at the high rates of physical and sexual abuse of minors, teen suicide, eating disorders, and substance abuse it’s apparent that parents aren’t doing too well. I’m sure most parents will disagree. Nevertheless, kids are taught to listen to their elders, following them willingly down dark allies, signing up in the military where they can kill and be killed just like dad, having kids themselves so they can treat them just like mom and dad did.
BATTLE ROYALE says enough. BATTLE ROYALE says that this is sick. That there’s no one to trust, that adults have their own agendas that only marginally involve the well-being of their children. It’s an anti-adult movie, it’s anti-military, it’s opposed to everything in our society we’re supposed to love, honor and obey.
The moral vertigo increases as the one familiar face, Takeshi Kitano, is a sick twist who gets off on what he’s doing. There’s no way to win with him, and that’s what’s horrifying in this movie: there is no way out for these kids. They’ll die if they play the game, they’ll die if they don’t. Even striking back at the big blue meanie (Kitano) will probably get him off in a sick, masochistic way.
Wall-to-wall classical music (all the old standards) gives a soundtrack to the societal child-hatred on display. Takeshi Kitano, Japan’s toothless tough-guy and most famous living director, plays his sickest character since BOILING POINT. The production values are high, the acting is unnoticeable, the carnage is blockbuster slick. For all we want to shut out a movie like BATTLE ROYALE it’s wearing the right outfit, so why can’t it get in the party? It’s well-dressed, one can’t dismiss it as hack-work, or as a low-budget boor. With a different plot it could be THE MUMMY RETURNS.
But no one in the US is going to pick up this movie in the aftermath of Columbine. It’s going to be virtually banned. Or if it is released it’ll have the life strangled out of it by warning labels and thoughtful op-ed pieces. Pundits will moralize, politicians will sermonize, and the movie will go ignored in the hoo-ha. But at the end of the day, this is the kind of movie teenagers need to see. It plays its narrative like STARSHIP TROOPERS, with the same mixture of irony and guts. But while TROOPERS kept on its muzzle by limiting its attack to other movies, ROYALE is hungry to take a chunk out of society and it goes after it with its muzzle off, teeth bared, leaping for its throat. No one wants to say they approve of that, but this flick is a public service announcement for the most politically and legally disenfranchised group in our society: minors. It is the kind of movie that gives them the advice their parents are too scared to mention, the kind of advice that can only come from your grandpa Fukasaku: grown-ups aren’t your friends, they want to kill you. Keep your head down, don’t play their game. And at the first chance you get, run for your life.