Screened at Rotterdam (main programme). Dir: Kinji Fukasaku. Japan. 2000. 113mins.
With its story of teenagers killing each other in a government-sponsored murder game, Battle Royale generated an unprecedented brouhaha following its December release in Japan, with members of parliament and even the minister of education decrying its ultra-violence as a bad influence on youth. To the surprise of absolutely no one in the business, youth lined up at the box office and turned the film into a smash hit, even though an R-15 rating meant that a large portion of its target audience couldn't see it.
For foreign film-goers expecting a gore fest to end all gore fests, the film will be a disappointment - bodies fly apart in CG-aided meat sprays, but the shock-horror quotient is not as high as the hype may lead them to expect. "I've seen worse," is already the standard lament. Nonetheless, Battle Royale could become a cult hit abroad, appealing to audiences beyond Asian schlock cinema fan boys.
Battle Royale posits a bleak near-future Japan in which unemployment and school violence have soared to record levels. The government may not have a solution for the former problem, but it does for the latter: the Battle Royale (BP) Act - a Final Solution for unruly kids. Every year 42 third-year junior-high students from all over the country are taken to an uninhabited island. There they are given weapons and told they must kill each other until, by the end of the third day, only one is left. If more than one remains, all the survivors will be blown to bits.
Beat Takeshi, known in his directorial incarnation as Takeshi Kitano, exudes black comic menace as this unlucky class' homeroom teacher, but the film quickly degenerates into a free-for-all, as the kids, to whom we've barely been introduced, begin offing each other with guns, knives and other means most foul. Two exceptions are a boy and girl who became friends on the bus ride over and are as peace-loving as any disciples of Mother Teresa. They find an ally in Kawada (Yamamoto Taro), the winner of an earlier game, who may hate violence as much as his newfound friends, but knows how to use it.
Meanwhile, the body count mounts, while the absurdities glare. If the government intends to terrorise out-of-control teens, why does it keep the game a big secret, instead of broadcasting it into every classroom in the country' And what is the point of surviving if, like poor Kawada, one has to come back and do it all over again next year'
Realising that much of the characterisation and motivation got left in the editing room, Fukasaku is assembling a director's cut that Toei will release in April. It would help the film's prospects abroad if this version, not the original, goes into foreign release. Even fan boys want a reason for cheering the next player to get off the island.
Prod cos: Toei, Arm Associates, Hiromi, Nihon Shuppan Hanbai, MF Pictures, Wowow, Gaga Communications. Int'l sales: Toei. Exec prod: Ikuro Takano. Prods: Kimio Kataoka, Chie Kobayashi, Kenta Fukasaku. Scr: Fukasaku. Cinematographer: Katsumi Yanagishima. Prod des: Kyoko Heya. Ed: Hirohide Abe. Music: Masamichi Abe. Main cast: Beat Takeshi, Akiya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto.