What is Battle Royale? That was the question that permeated my head in the final third of this Lord of the Flies meets Fight Club exhibition. For the record, Battle Royale is a scheme set-up by the government to combat the unruly and disruptive youth of a near future Japan. A class of students are picked at random to -compete in a three-day slaughter of each other, with only one survivor allowed to return to normality as a stark warning to all. The class of forty or so are each equipped with weapons ranging from machine guns, to axes, to pots and pans, and set about either unleashing their violent survivalist side, trying to find a means of escape, or simply refusing to take part, preferring to leap off mountains in suicide pacts.
The whole event is presided over by Takeshi Kitano’s amoral master who’s not averse to a little cheating here and there. So this is Battle Royale, but the deeper question did not challenge the title or actual event on show. I wanted to know exactly what the film’s raison d’etre was; it’s point, it’s purpose, it’s message. This is never quite clear, and thus we have the greatest strength and failing of an erstwhile entertaining pseudo-action film. A messy concoction of ideas, constantly overlapping and overriding one another. Fascinating for a while, but ultimately what the film needs is the kind of conviction that particular students take to killing off their fellow classmates.
It’s not that Battle Royale is in any way clandestine or cagey about what it’s portraying, it’s the apparent switching and diversion of ideology which is the major stumbling factor. Unless Fukasaku was attempting to cull all these various themes into the melee of blood and tears that is Battle Royale, the outcome seemed clumsy and even at times, misplaced. With each twist and turn (whether narrative-wise, emotional or in outlook) we see these predicaments in a new, or at least superficially shunted, light. The opening half of the film is excellent though, a sustained sense of dread and impending anguish puncturing the childish attitudes of the young participants. The scene in which Kitano explains what Battle Royale means to the participants, juxtaposing the gaudy media-encompassing culture with the very real threat of sudden and unpleasant death, is masterful. As the class wake up from what they believed was an innocuous school trip, they discover that choking electronic tagging collars have been fastened to their necks and a small militia have gathered in this dark blue room, with Kitano at the helm. The film peaks at this point, its dystopian blurrings colliding headfirst with social analogy. The entire opening act is the very much topical issue of the expanding gulf between young and old, the respect that the elders demand trodden underfoot by juvenile ideals, and thus works well. The direction from the 70-year old Fukasaku to the performances by the youthful cast are spot on, depicting the edgy classroom histrionics and gossip with added bloodlust. It’s almost as if its a study of the omnipresentplayground dynamics that dominates youth relations, only with thepetty squabbles and fallings out sorted out with guns rather than harsh but unfelt words. In one particular scene, a niche of five very feminine girls slaughter each other over the kind of argument that may arise because of a nasty word behindone’s back or a case of isolation within a group, except in this case, one girl has poisoned another. It’s in these passages, with the combination of extreme violence and the intentionally stilted portrayal of youth relations that the film commands the attention of both mind and eyes.
However, towards the end the film appears to lose, or even switch focus. What is apparent is no longer a parable of social tension, but much more, and significantly the film loses its narrow and precise focus and becomes a sprawling thought-machine. The adults become just as bad as the gun-toting teens, leaving their posts of authority and indulging in the morbid spectacle, whilst Fukasaku suddenly decides to lose a pound of cynicism and make us care about the plight of the individuals. Suddenly as if from nowhere we have an upbeat ending, unfortunately without the level of ambiguity it needs. Is the director broadening his scope to encompass such issues as fascism, the sour sensationalism of the media, a Michael Haneke type study of our attitudes towards screen violence and so forth, or his vision conforming to a more conventional conclusion, less biting and more attempted redemption. Who knows, because towards the end there isn’t really an all-encompassing point to skewer all the past two hours thoughts and ideas on.
So Battle Royale was at first a shrewd depiction, coupled with an excellent atmosphere with game performances and acute art direction, but shapeshifted into something unfamiliar. A combination of first-rate action-film direction with an even-handed satire, that seemed to fade away into insignificance. Whereas in the opening half, the emphasis was placed on admiring the twisted ideology and blood-stained cynicism, the second is too heavily reliant on the more mundane conventions of the survivalist action film. By turning such a corner the whole ideology of the entire film is shaken, and thusly, the foundations are somewhat damaged. Events preceding the reversal of virtues are know seen in a less impressive light, and the portrayal of the characters, the location, the scenario and the relations all seems a little superficial. Now, maybe this was the point, but I couldn’t help thinking that FUKASAKU had a few good points lacking cohesion and ultimately, conviction. So this film entertains those that like the kinetic rush of action as well as those that enjoy a film that gets them thinking, but for those that want a complete and satisfactory product, I’m not sure if Battle Royale is up to that challenge.
What is Battle Royale? Unfortunately it’s only quite good.