Two days of nonstop teen vs. teen mayhem referenced by onscreen graphics that identify the three dozen-plus young corpses that pile up with the goal of only one combatant surviving, Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku
's 60th film, "Battle Royale", has proved so controversial that media watchdogs in Japan have harshly criticized its brutality. The film received an R-15 rating, which prohibits viewers age 15 and under. The Japanese rating system, like the American one, is voluntary. Business has been brisk since its mid-December opening.
Before the U.S. premiere of "Battle" at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on Thursday night, Fukasaku joked that his rating for the film would be "R-50", with viewers over the age of 50 denied admittance. Along with his son Kenta, who wrote the screenplay based on a 1998 novel by Koshun Takami, Fukasaku attended this sold-out opener to the American Cinematheque's 15-film retrospective of his work. Given the controversy elsewhere, the reaction afterward was positively tame.
During the movie, however, there was wave after wave of boisterous laughter during some of the most grisly action, and many showstopping moments by star "Beat" Takeshi Kitano
got a big rise from fans. While some kind of domestic distribution makes sense, "Battle" is not likely to repeat its boxoffice success in Asia so far. Still, there is a following for Fukasaku (whose works include co-directing the Japanese segments of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and extreme cult favorites like 1973's "Battles Without Honor and Humanity"), and "Battle" should have a lively ancillary career.
Alas, one does not confuse "Battle" with other difficult-to-watch films that it fleetingly reminds one of -- serious works of divergent cinema that many despise and others claim are masterpieces of the movie industry's darkest impulses, including "THX 1138", "A Clockwork Orange" and "Natural Born Killers". For comparison, one also could throw in a few clunkers such as "Quintet" and "No Escape" because Fukasaku's graphic sci-fi fable fleetingly indulges in convincing character development to go with its bleak assessment of humanity.
The story concerns a group of 42 ninth-grade students who are taken by the their teacher and a few trigger-happy soldiers to a small jungle island. Each is given a pack with supplies and weapons, running off into the night to be victim or killer. The near future, it seems, is not going well, with students by the hundreds of thousands revolting against elders in an economic depression. Like such genre nuggets as "Soylent Green" and "Silent Running", the leap from a hard-line fascistic government with a nasty attitude to some grand spectacle like the wholesale slaughter of girls and boys in their school outfits with various weapons is none too convincing. Certainly, some kids don't accept it and invariably fail to survive.
Leading the operation in another of his trademark off-kilter characterizations is renowned actor-director "Beat" Takeshi. His stone-faced character uncreatively is called Kitano and morphs from harried teacher to scout leader from hell. In one long, viciously executed sequence -- further enlivened by a jokey instructional video -- Kitano briefs the assembled, terrified students, all of whom have explosive neck collars that track their whereabouts and can deliver harsh punishments for straying into constantly shifting "danger zones" on the island.
With the help of a public address system, Kitano gives the rapidly dying-off lineup of students regular updates as to who is left, while the screenplay works in most of the onscreen violence that includes many deaths by firearms and hasty exits via poison, knives, hatchets, jumping off cliffs, crossbows and, as a warm-up, fatal head wounds when the collar is detonated. Once the battle has officially started, several bewildered participants are quickly dispatched in the struggle to get good weapons.
Many of the students, including Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara
) and his girlfriend, Noriko (Aki Maeda
), are given trick weapons, which help the them survive at crucial moments. Of the remaining major characters -- keeping in mind that the Fukasakus over and over try pretty hard to make one care about, say, five surviving girls in a lighthouse who blow each other to bits with guns -- a veteran of a previous Battle Royale, Kawada (Taro Yamamoto
), rates as a good guy. Wild-haired loner Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando
) is the most formidable player as he shoots a lot of bullets and takes no prisoners.
A special mention goes to witchy, throat-cutting Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki
), who makes it to the final 10, and athlete Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama
), whose butchering of a sappy boy who loves her represents arguably the film's harshest moment. Of course, a chief attraction to theatrical audiences is to have loads of laughs over the black comedy aspects and not take it too seriously. The audience at the Egyptian was very accommodating.
Opting for a disappointing happy ending, the film has no special agenda beyond the Fukasakus' reliance on intense feelings of gloom and despair to imagine a cartoonish rite of passage that is briefly softened with several comfy flashbacks. Technical credits are tops. The spraying blood and many shredding bodies in the action sequences easily out-gross the last dozen or so Hollywood slasher movies.
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenwriter: Kenta Fukasaku
Based on the novel by: Koshun Takano
Producers: Masao Sato
, Masumi Okada
, Teruo Kamaya, Tetsu Kayama
Executive producer: Ikuro Takano
Director of photography: Katsumi Yanagijima
Production designer: Kyoko Heya
Music: Masamichi Amano
Shuya: Tatsuya Fujiwara
Noriko: Aki Maeda
Kawada: Taro Yamamoto
Kiriyama: Masanobu Ando
Mitsuko: Kou Shibasaki
Chigusa: Chiaki Kuriyama
Kitano: "Beat" Takeshi Kitano
Running time -- 113 minutes
No MPAA rating