Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Battle Royale

Last night I watched a film called Battle Royale. This Japanese film, directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku, is disturbing, violent, thought-provoking and ultimately a little puzzling. If you've not yet seen this film, then please be aware that I'm about to discuss details of the plot which could be considered "spoilers". Please don't read any further if this is a problem.

The basic plot of Battle Royale is simplicity itself...

Modern Japan is a nation in terminal decay. Society has begun to fragment as the youth become more and more alienated from the rigid culture in which they find themselves; whilst at the same time becoming aware that the impending economic collapse leaves them no future... even if they had wanted to participate. Teachers are stabbed in schools and parents are incapable of handling their own children. The "grown ups" have lost control and an intergenerational conflict is simmering just beneath the surface.

As a response to this, the government pass the Battle Royale Act. Each year, under this new law, a random High School class is chosen by impartial lottery. The class is then sent to a deserted island where they must fight to the death. Fitted with explosive necklaces (which blow a large hole in the child's throat, killing them almost - though not quite - instantly) the children are told that if they choose not to fight, then they'll all die... only one child may be living by the end of the three day battle, and that child then gets to go home. If there's more than one alive on the island by the end, then all the remaining necklaces are detonated.

The children are each given a random weapon or tool (a crossbow or a shotgun, or perhaps a scythe or maybe a pair of binoculars) and told to get killing one another.

And that's the film.

They set about slaughtering each other in a variety of gruesome ways, with the violence punctuated by conversations in which the children repeatedly fail to make any sense of what's going on, and also with flashbacks which go some way towards explaining the personalities of the children.

The "grown up" overseeing this massacre is played by "Beat" Takeshi Kitano. Kitano (playing a character called "Kitano") is probably my favourite film director of all time (see Sonatine, Hana-Bi, Zatoichi, and especially Dolls for the best examples of his work). He tends to star in his own films, but sometimes acts in the films of others. And not only does he have a flawless directorial eye, but he also manages to bring an incredible intensity to any role he plays. It's a quality that allows him to somehow fill the screen, despite the quietness of his characters. He radiates both wisdom and extreme menace... a great thing for an actor to be capable of.

As the film unfolds we begin to realise that it's not only the children who are unable to explain just why this is happening to them. Kitano too has no rationale. When one of the students confronts him to demand "Why are you doing this!?" Kitano can only shout in response "You brought it on yourselves! It's your fault!"

Near the beginning of the film we see Kitano (as a school teacher) being stabbed by one of his students. We hear news reports about children running amok, about social collapse, about the disrespectful youth and their refusal to toe the line. But as the children's memories are relayed to us through the flashbacks, we see the seeds of this intergenerational conflict.

Children, the film begins to remind us, are products of the family and society in which they live. I'm not (and nor does the film) proposing a "blank slate" view of human personality. Indeed I tend to believe that we're all born with inherent traits which will struggle to assert themselves despite any conditioning. But at the same time, it seems obvious that a child's environment will have a dramatic effect on the shaping of their personality, and hence on their behaviour. As the children flash-back to the formative events of their short lives, we see the events which destroyed their faith in the future, or in society at large.

The ultra-violent Mitsuko (played with a real psychotic edge by the mesmerising Kou Shibasaki) flashes back to her childhood... she's perhaps 6 years old... her mother lies sprawled drunkenly across the kitchen table as Mitsuko returns from school. A man in late middle-age passes a bunch of banknotes to the near-comatose mother who motions for Mitsuko to "go play with the man". We see Mitsuko and the man upstairs. He's undressing a barbie-doll. Then he says to Mitsuko, "OK, your turn".

Then there's Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara). His mother walked out on him when he was a baby. His father is unemployed and getting more and more desperate. We see Shuya return home from his first day in 7th Grade to discover his father has hanged himself with electrical flex. His trousers are around his ankles, and his blue-grey face is horribly distended. Wrapped around him is a roll of toilet paper with a suicide note scribbled upon it. "You can do it Shuya". The child throws up at the sight.

As the film progresses we are made more and more aware that there is simply no reason for this violence. Kitano has no life to speak of. In fact, none of the "grown ups" we meet are any less savage, any less sadistic, any less terminally bewildered than the children. The message of Battle Royale is a very simple one; a point made from the earliest pieces of literature to the most recent films; "As you sow, so shall you reap."

Battle Royale is more than a cautionary tale about what happens when children are mistreated (you get fucked up, damaged children of course). It's a warning that people with no future are capable of almost anything. And that the meaningless and absurdity of violence is no obstacle for those without hope.

If you have a problem with graphic violence, then Battle Royale is probably not the film for you. However, I feel it'd be a shame to miss this pointedly shocking film, just because you don't like being shocked.


Blogger Nick said...

I haven't read it, but apparently the original book the movie is based on is set in an alternate history where Japan won WWII (or at least didn't lose as badly) and hence is more militaristic and devoted to notions of self-sacrifice etc - hence BR emerges from that mindset.

6/1/05 21:53  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

I'd heard that the novel was set in an alternative reality (where amongst other things, Japan had not been defeated in WW2), but it made the film much more powerful, from my point of view, that the world it's set in is (more or less) our own.

Whereas, I believe the book (and I'm basing this on a couple of reviews; I've not read it either) did address the same issues as the film, it's far more culturally specific and extremely heavy going for someone unfamiliar with life in Japan. I got the impression, however, that the film - whilst still very Japanese - was trying to be more universal.

It portrayed a world devoid of meaning... Kitano's line near the end of the film about how his own child despises him, and how he has "nothing to go back to" is a reminder that any world in which adults send children off to murder one other, is a world with serious problems.

I suspect a more accurate film translation of the book could perhaps have made more of an impact on a Japanese viewer, but less of an impact on an international audience.

7/1/05 00:54  
Blogger L said...

Maybe it's just me, but I actually preferred Audition myself... nice summation though.

7/1/05 00:56  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

I've not seen Audition yet (though it's on my flatmate's online DVD-rental list, so I imagine it'll be dropping through the letterbox before too long).

I have to admit though, the premise doesn't interest me nearly as much as Battle Royale. I'll be glad to be proved wrong, but I sometimes feel when you focus a film like that down onto a single person, that it loses some of its power. The shock and horror is still there of course, but I'm someone who likes that extra dollop of existential despair that films like Battle Royale dump onto you.

But it's always great to be proved wrong when your expectations are low. It happened tonight actually... just finished watching Pedro Almodóvar's Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) and had my expectations totally blown out of the water. I managed to convince myself before the film had even started that it was going to be "a turgid melodrama" (that was the exact phrase I'd decided on).

And it wasn't. At all. It was funny and touching and wise and tragic and heartwarming. Which is a damn good combination. And the fact that the whole thing occurs with A Streetcar Named Desire as backdrop is just perfect. I highly recommend it.

7/1/05 01:32  
Blogger Rachel said...

Thanks for the reviews :). I'd managed to convince myself that there was no point watching BR since it would be an essentially plotless two hours of gore that would alternately bore and disgust me, but you've persuaded me that there's more to it than that and I'm looking forward to seeing it now, when I can find a copy. Audition was on my list already, and now I can add All About My Mother.

I saw my first Almodovar film last year - the fantastic Bad Education - and I can definitely recommend that to anyone who likes their films complex.

And thanks also for the language tip you left on my blog :).

8/1/05 11:58  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

Based on the strength of All About My Mother, and a continuing stream of good reviews, I'm really looking forward to seeing Bad Education now.

Online DVD rental is an absolute godsend for film buffs. The local Blockbuster-equivalent - for we don't even merit a Blockbuster here! - is perfect for when I want to see 100 million dollars-worth of special effects (which, I admit, isn't entirely unusual for me). But if I'm in the mood for anything else at all, it tends to come up lacking.

And of course, renting DVDs online means I can avoid having to interact with the video-store guy; thus severing yet another tie to humanity and leaving me (and every other sucker who signs up to this bloody online DVD racket!) that little bit deeper in the miasma of alienation. Woo-hoo!

8/1/05 18:23  

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