The New Cult Canon: Battle Royale

The New Cult Canon: Battle Royale

For those of us who live in North America, Kinji Fukasaku's youth-oriented bloodbath Battle Royale doesn't officially exist, though the legions of cultists who have seen special screenings or own bootlegged or imported DVDs know otherwise. There's always been a huge audience for it here in the States, and references abound in American pop culture, from Quentin Tarantino's casting of evil schoolgirl Chiaki Kuriyama as Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill to The Flaming Lips' use of Battle Royale footage as a backdrop for its Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots tour. Yet for a variety of reasons, the film has never been distributed in the U.S. or on non-import DVD, leading some to speculate, falsely, that it was banned here. The real story is actually much more complicated to sort out.

There was a potentially enormous audience in the U.S. for Battle Royale, but a conflation of factors kept it off screens. The biggest problem was that the Japanese label Toei wanted more money for it ($1-$2 million upfront) than anyone was willing to give, and tougher still, the company expected a wide release along the lines of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I think that for the right distributor, those conditions were actually something of a bargain, judging by Battle Royale's runaway popularity as a book, a manga line, and a film in Japan. Trouble is, the right distributor didn't and doesn't exist. The only distributors capable of releasing the film on a Crouching Tiger scale are the boutique arms of major studios like Sony and Disney, and the film's premise of 15-year-old kids fighting to the death was way too toxic, especially in a country rife with school shootings. There was no guarantee that the ratings board would play along, either; though the MPAA isn't known for handing out NC-17 ratings for violence alone, it seems likely they'd have singled this movie out. A smaller, independent distributor might have been able to adopt the film, but exhibition on more than just a handful of arthouse screens would have been highly unlikely, given the subject matter. (The only possible middle-of-the-road exception is Lionsgate, an independent with the capital to release such a movie on a large scale, but clearly that didn't happen, either.)

I first saw Battle Royale at a one-night-only screening at Facets Cinematheque here in Chicago. There was a special, higher admission price for the film, and a rare sell-out crowd in attendance, but even so, it was my understanding that Facets was still showing it at a loss. I was later shocked to discover that Tartan Asia Extreme had released a high-quality import-only DVD designed specifically for NTSC players, but it says something that I got my copy at Amoeba Records in San Francisco, not at the local Best Buy. It's much easier to see now, but as a cult phenomenon, there's still sort of a backroom, secret-handshake quality to the film, and that's added a layer of mystique that nearly makes up for its lack of mass-market accessibility.

As high concepts go, Battle Royale hits the sweet spot: It's Lord Of The Flies meets The Most Dangerous Game meets perhaps the cruelest year of teenage life, which would have a Darwinian quality even without the aid of axes and semi-automatics. Add to that ultra-violence, Japanese schoolgirls, and Takeshi Kitano, add water and stir, and voila, you have the ingredients for an instant cult classic.

Based on Koushun Takami's wildly popular book—which I'm ashamed to admit I haven't read—the film taps into millennial anxieties about what the nation's youth have in store. In a near-future police state, the government has passed a law called the Millennium Educational Reform Act (otherwise known as the "Battle Royale Act") designed to suppress teenage rebellion. The law sounds like the most entertaining reality show never made: Every year, a random class is rounded up on a deserted island and forced to slaughter each other until one person remains. In order to ensure they do as they're told, all the students are drugged and fitted with necklaces that monitor their pulse and location, and will explode if they hide away in constantly shifting "danger zones" on their maps, or if more than one of them survives after a three-day period. In this NSFW scene, a new group gets their instructions from a former teacher—played by the steely Takeshi Kitano—and from a bubbly video tour guide who explains the rules. (Rule #1: If you're ever forced to stand on tarped-over floor, keep your mouth shut.):

Once Kitano resumes the video, it's explained that the 41 students present are each to receive a "survival kit" that includes food, water, a map, a compass, and one weapon, which will range from a machine gun to a pot lid. One by one, they dash off into the night, forced to come to terms with their roles as guinea pigs in a sadistic sociological experiment. Some quickly embrace the inevitable, including a kid who tries picking off his fellow students with a crossbow immediately after leaving the building. Others refuse to participate in the bloodletting, and commit suicide instead. Still more form tentative alliances, like techies who try to hack the computer monitoring system and instigate a mini-revolution, or girls who hole up peacefully in a lighthouse. Then there are a couple of strange, glowering "transfer students," who look considerably older than the other kids and have unknown agendas.

Outside the fray are a pair of sweet-natured peaceniks named Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda), armed with a pot lid and a flashlight, respectively. They care about each other and are determined to survive together, in spite of the harsh reality that one of them will have to be killed in order for the other to live. Needless to say, this is not the foundation for a trusting relationship, especially once one of the transfer students, the unusually resourceful Kawada (Taro Yamamodo), becomes friendly with them. Shuya and Noriko can only dodge the inevitable for so long; when it comes time to kill or be killed, how do they preserve their honor and innocence, let alone their lives?

Battle Royale is many things at once: A grand metaphor for the cruel cliques and hierarchies that govern teenage life; a statement about the chasm between the older and younger generations; a rebellious salvo against fascism and government control; and a stinging, no-holds-barred action film that's like manga come to life. Watching 15-year-olds savagely murder other 15-year-olds sounds irredeemably perverse as entertainment, like The Running Man for kidz. But because the whole situation is so thoroughly couched in metaphor—and because Fukasaku aligns himself so strongly with the youth—the film remains surprisingly palatable, even fun, because there are only abstract ideas connecting what happens in the film to reality. Elephant this ain't.

Some might be surprised to learn that the late Fukasaku was 70 years old when he directed Battle Royale, and it was a triumphant return to form for a filmmaker who built his career on super-stylish (and often campy) yakuza movies and youth pictures from the late '60s and early '70s, like Black Lizard, Battles Without Honor And Humanity, Blackmail Is My Life, and If You Were Young: Rage. Importing the freewheeling style of the French New Wave and the hip detachment of American noir, Fukasaku sympathized most with young people whose dreams are extinguished before they come of age. It was remarkable to see Fukasaku, 30 years past his exuberant prime, invest the same energy and attitude into a film about kids several generations removed from him. Clearly, he's a man who never reached his Andy Rooney phase.

Having 42 school-kids knock each other off with varied weaponry would probably be enough for a passable genre movie, but Battle Royale does a surprisingly subtle job of delineating between the varied personalities and alliances that make up the average classroom. I've joked that you can't throw a rock in Japan without hitting a disaffected teenager, but even similarly disaffected kids have many different temperaments, and the film's situation helps bring them out of their shells and shows us who they really are. Their age is crucial: At 15, kids no longer need hand-holding from adults, but they don't have the confidence and self-possession of 18-year-olds, either, and their 'tweener status leads to awkward interactions and a hive mentality. The most mature among them have the good sense either not to participate in the violence—like Shuya and Noriko, or those who commit suicide—or to direct the violence toward the real perpetrators, like the MacGyver-like techies who try to combat the authorities.

Of course, as in any class, there are nasty little rivalries, awkward love connections, and monstrous queen bees, and the fight-to-the-death conflict intensifies their relationships tenfold. Suddenly, enemies have license to resolve their grievances with extreme prejudice, and the bonds of even the closest friendships are tested. As a sociological experiment, it's right out of Lord Of The Flies, only here, bloody chaos isn't the result of order breaking down, but a condition mandated by the state. In this infamous and deeply ironic scene, the peaceful accord reached by a group of girlfriends holed up in a lighthouse gets tested when one of them decides to play saboteur:

Battle Royale isn't perfect: The repeated flashbacks are often hasty, expository shortcuts; the plot muddies up a bit in the final third; and some of the day-for-night photography looks pale and amateurish. Yet the film has vitality and excitement, too, and speaks to the youth of the day with much the same galvanizing power as classics like If…. and A Clockwork Orange. (There are a handful of Kubrickian music cues, too, courtesy of Bach, Verdi, and Schubert.) Though it has the veneer of cool that marked Fukasaku's work in his prime, the film keeps its finger on the pulse and connects in a disarmingly sincere way with uncertain youths poised at the turn of the millennium. Fukasaku doesn't feel any more optimistic about their futures in 2000 than he did 30 years earlier, but at least the old man's on their side.

Coming Soon:

Next week: Dead Man

June 12: Wet Hot American Summer

June 19: The Boondock Saints (with special guest Overnight)

June 26: Punch-Drunk Love