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Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku) 2001

    I want to preface this review with the disclaimer that I didn't see Battle Royale in a theater. Although it has played in some film festivals in the US, apparently the film is too controversial to achieve proper US distribution (though I have read reports suggesting the film's Japanese owners want a hell of a lot of money and a wide release for it since it was such a hit in Japan). I ended up purchasing a bootleg VHS copy of the film that had a slightly subpar image quality and Chinese subtitles that I couldn't turn off. That said, let's get on to the review:

Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale has achieved its notoriety here in the US due to its subject matter, which basically combines the Columbine massacre with TV's "Survivor". In the film, which is set slightly in the future, a class of forty two 15 year old students are selected by a lottery system to be airlifted as a group to an island where they will be made to kill each other until only one is left. A three day time limit is imposed to ensure the students don't dawdle, and each student is given a grab bag that includes a weapon (though some get gag weapons, like a frying pan). The scenes in which the master of ceremonies (Beat Takeshi) explains the rules to the kids are the film's most effective. There are giddy layers of satire and dread here that really cut through the illogical nature of most of the film. An instructional video that explains the explosive collars that insure the students remain on the island is narrated by an abnormally cheery hostess. The lottery is the result of a Japanese law, supposedly enacted to keep rebellious youth in line. I'm not quite sure how it's supposed to function as a scare tactic if the participants are chosen at random, though.

Even if its fundamental premise is slightly flawed, the film manages to work to a great extent. There's a mean streak of black comedy running throughout the film that makes much of the melodrama more tolerable. The film basically descends into the realm of the slasher flick once the game begins (with a handy onscreen body count), but it provides a lot of the thrills that people look for in that genre, so that's fair enough. Once it dropped a lot of its satirical baggage, I was able to stop considering it an important film, and start watching it as an entertaining one. I found myself personally rooting for one of the meanest characters. She seemed more capable of playing the game than any of the wimps that bothered to form alliances. I'm sure that I was rooting for one of the characters instead of being outraged by the whole affair disqualifies me from the realm of political correctness, but I can't imagine most of the controversy surrounding this film is unfounded. Then again, I'm not sure that I would want any 15 year old American kids to see it. Still it's a shame that no distributor has picked up the film. It certainly becomes a challenge for the marketplace to determine a film's worth when they have to bootleg a copy of it from eBay to see the thing.

***

October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman