Friday, July 8, 2011
#111: Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
Kinji Fukasaku was one of the kings of Japanese genre filmmaking. Working in a variety of genres at a fiendishly prodigious pace, Fukasaku nevertheless gave the majority of his output a hard-to-maintain standard of quality and irreverent personal stamp notably absent from many other filmmakers who cranked out as many movies as he did. Perhaps his closest fellow traveler is countryman Takashi Miike, another audacious visual stylist who pumps out movies by the truckload and works in many genres. Fukasaku's best work is found in a series of formally inventive, extremely violent, darkly funny, and offbeat organized crime and gangster films in the 1960s and 1970s. From his claustrophobic and sadistic, compressed-space mini-masterpiece Wolves, Pigs, & Men to his more traditional gangster epic Battles Without Honor and Humanity and its sequel Graveyard of Honor and Humanity (which sit nicely next to the first two Godfather films and Goodfellas in their grand sweep and mixture of classicism and New Wave/New Hollywood currency), Fukasaku's crime films are a more than fine place for movie lovers to spend their time. The man had a lot more to offer than films about the yakuza, however. Horror, science fiction, dramas, samurai films, war films, youth pictures, and the indescribable Black Lizard, which combines a heist film, a gangster film, a murder mystery, a smoky nightclub film, a French New Wave homage, and a transsexual love story that's played with a surprising (for 1967) amount of empathy, sympathy, and matter-of-fact nonchalance, starring Japan's most popular drag queen of the era. I tried to describe it, but you just have to see it.
Fukasaku's final film, 2000's Battle Royale, is just a hair short of his 1960s-1970s best and unintentionally (in the sense that he didn't know it would be his final completed film) puts a period on the sentence of his filmography by combining a bit of everything he does well. Battle Royale combines elements of horror, science fiction, action, crime, war, drama, black comedy, the high school movie, and over-the-top soap opera sentimentality into a taut little teenage version of an only-one-can-survive scenario. The film also features one of my favorite recent performances, an understated black comic gem of revenge, loneliness, and cookie-hoarding by the legendary Takeshi Kitano. I'll come back to him later.
Battle Royale begins in a near-future that is much closer for comfort than it was 11 years ago. The economy has collapsed and public education is in the toilet. 800,000 teenagers have stopped showing up to school. The ones who still come are out of control. The government passes a law, the Battle Royale Act, to scare the bejeezus out of the little punks. The act makes it legal for the government to pick a random high school class by lottery, ship them off to a deserted island, and make them fight to the death until only one student survives. That student gets to go free, but he or she may be forced back into the mix as a ringer for a future battle royale. There are always two ringers. Some of them are past winners, but others are sociopathic thrillseekers signing up for fun. The ringers are called "transfer students" in governmentspeak. The particular battle royale in this film enjoys one of each brand of transfer student.
The students get to the island through a combination of treachery and drugging. They think they're taking an already scheduled field trip. They eagerly hop on the bus but are eventually put to sleep and transported to the island unawares by a heavily guarded military presence. They awake in a simulated classroom with electric collars around their necks. Their former teacher Takeshi, now a government employee with the battle royale department, happily explains the general plan to his ex-students and then shows them a video of a cheerful young woman happily filling in the details. The students are released into the dark of night one by one, by class rank, alternating between boys and girls. Each student is issued a bag of supplies, a map of the island, and one random weapon. Fate can be cruel or kind here. The weapons include guns, crossbows, axes, Tasers, tracking devices, poisons, grenades, bulletproof vests, swords, nunchakus, trashcan lids, and flashlights.
Soon, we're thrust into the claustrophobic hotbox of 9th grade interpersonal relations, made more intense by the new social order of kill or be killed. Some students form factions, some go it alone. Some refuse to kill, some kill themselves, some kill for revenge and/or twisted pleasure, some kill only in self-defense, some kill because they want to get into a good college later. It's a typical three days of high school, with more blood and explosions. Oh yeah, those collars. Four times a day, parts of the island are declared off-limits. Anyone lingering in these areas will get their throats torn out by the explosive devices embedded in the collars. The collars will also detonate if the students attempt to remove them or if more than one student survives the three-day time limit. Only one student may survive, or everybody dies. To drive the point home, one student's collar is purposefully detonated during the orientation.
As I mentioned before, the ex-teacher turned battle royale administrator is played by Takeshi Kitano. Kitano is a modern Renaissance man. A film critic once wrote that if one turns on a television in Japan at any time of the day or night, Kitano will be on at least one channel. This is probably not hyperbole. Kitano has worked as a standup comic, game show host, sitcom star, late night talk show host, actor, writer, director, and painter. He's a great actor and an even better director. In films like Fireworks, Boiling Point, Sonatine, Kikujiro, and Zatoichi, writer/director/star Kitano skillfully integrates slapstick comedy, extreme violence, action, meditative beauty, complex drama, bizarre non-sequiturs, romantic paeans to nature and love, his own painting, and his painter's eye for color and composition. His films are unlike anyone's, anywhere, and his body of work is a must-see for anybody who cares about movies more than a little. His role here is one of his most enjoyable. A scene where he answers his cellphone at a particularly interesting moment in his life is worth the next hundred jokes you'll hear.
I'll leave the rest of Battle Royale for you to discover. I've seen it three times, and it's still as exciting, funny, and gripping as it was on that first viewing. The first two times I watched the film, I identified with the kids. After several years in the fringes of education as a student teacher and substitute teacher, I now identify just as much with Kitano. I've worked with a lot of kids that needed the occasional crossbow through the throat. Teaching is a lonely profession. It's always you vs. them, even when they're momentarily on your side.
Fukasaku's Battle Royale became such a success in its native country that he got to work on a sequel. Shortly after filming began, Fukasaku was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died shortly thereafter. His son Kenta completed the bulk of the film. I haven't seen it yet, though most reviews call it a disappointment. Whatever the second film's quality, the first one makes a fitting epitaph. Fukasaku's earlier films have a world-weariness and jaded cynicism that comes with hard living and age. This final work bears most of his trademarks, but it's paradoxically a young man's film. The 70-year-old man at the end of his life and career made a movie with a young person's energy and enthusiasm. I like that.