Monday, May 14, 2012

Turning Japanese--

The Teratology of Battle Royale

There can be only one.

The economy is collapsing. The education system is crumbling. The traditional family structure is in shambles. This is not America in 2008; it’s Japan of 1999 during the middle of an economic depression. A best-selling novel is Battle Royale, which tells the story of 42 middle schoolers who are forced to kill each other. The Battle Royale Program takes place in a near future totalitarian Japan that randomly selects a teenage class and places them in an undisclosed location to participate in a “survival” game. The rules are simple: kill or be killed. Popular action film director Kinji Fukasaku transferred Battle Royale to the silver screen in 2000.

Fukasaku was known as a pulp director, which is a narrative style where the author uses hyperrealism to enhance a story: scenes are bloodier than they should be, situations more absurd, dialogue more stylized. A perfect example in Battle Royale occurs when a character has a hatchet embedded in his skull and continues to speak for several moments afterward, like Wile E. Coyote running for several minutes in midair before remembering gravity.

Walk it off, dude.

Fukasaku’s Battle Royale is pulp on a grand scale. Its violence is sudden and brutal—students are shot, stabbed, decapitated and poisoned. After each death, the victim’s name flashes on screen along with their class number and the number of students remaining, like a gruesome scorecard. With 42 players to keep track of, Fukasaku defines characters by action and weapon of choice: The vicious Mitsuko Souma (Kou Shibasaki) uses a farmer’s sickle to rack up her kills, but the practical Shogo Kawada (Taro Yamamoto) uses a pump-action shotgun. It also includes several haunting visuals: The images of Mitsuko smiling while underlit by a handheld flashlight or the erratic program director, Kitano (Beat Takeshi), leading a calisthenics class in an empty athletic field will stay with you long after the credits roll.

For reference, this is what evil looks like.

Like Terminator 2 (1991) or The Matrix (1999), Battle Royale is pulp that takes itself seriously. Its practical effects are top notch as is its attention to dialogue and characterization; Kitano’s quirkiness and subtlety make him one of cinema’s great villains. Its effects are far reaching; much of Kill Bill’s (2003-2004) elements are drawn from this film. While its effect on The Hunger Games (2012) is debated, it can be seen echoed in a film like Brick (2005), which also places teenagers in adult situations in a pulp setting.

The respect Fukasaku has for the original story comes in part from a massacre during his childhood. During World War II, after a nighttime bombardment, he was conscripted to clean up the body parts from civilian casualties. The experience had a lasting effect on him—he commented in an interview made during the final stages of production on Battle Royale: “Contemporary children don’t encounter situations where their arms and legs can be blown off, right? But I have. I used to watch as bodily fluids oozed from the corpses I carried on my shoulders.” He was 15, the same age as the characters in Battle Royale.

Fukasaku as an adult. Is it me, or have we seen that smile before?
Fukasaku’s firsthand experience makes Battle Royale different from a movie like The Matrix or Kill Bill and unique in the history of pulp film making. Battle Royale’s violence is not glorified, but absurd enough that it echoes the bizarreness of real carnage.

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