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Battle Royale

#459 - Battle Royale
Kinji Fukusaku, 2000

A class full of middle-school students go on a class trip only to find that they have been stranded on a remote island and are being forced to fight each other to the death.

Another day, another favourite film - this time it's Battle Royale, the instant cult classic that spun a darkly fun little film out of a well-worn sci-fi trope by building a dystopian world where the Japanese government's plan to crack down on growing socio-economic problems such as unemployment and juvenile delinquency is to...randomly choose one class of middle-school students each year to be placed on an island and forced to compete in "Battle Royale", where they must fight to the death until there is only one student remaining. To guarantee that the students comply with the rules of the game, they are fitted with explosive collars that will detonate if there isn't a clear winner left by the end of the game's three-day period. Other factors - such as survival packs that each contain a single randomised "weapon" (ranging from practical ones like guns and knives to non-lethal ones like binoculars and GPS trackers) so as to make things more interesting. Once the classmates (and a pair of mysterious newcomers who are added at the last minute) are set loose on the island, they all respond to the situation in a variety of different and disturbing ways (some go on killing sprees, some opt out through suicide, some try to fight back against those in charge, etc.), but the common goal for many of them is to survive no matter what.

Multiple viewings and the passage of time have made it easier to see through the flaws that were easy to ignore the first dozen times I saw this film, but I think it's to the film's credit that it blows past a lot of them pretty easily. The film's cold open indicates that each year's Battle Royale attracts a media frenzy whenever it's over, yet this year's class have to have the whole thing explained to them as if they had never heard of it (presumably for the sake of developing exposition to the audience). There are other inconsistencies provided by the rules of the game, such as the references to "danger zones" that set off the players' collars but play virtually no significant role in the story, as well as the entire sub-plot involving a trio of computer nerds planning their own subterfuge that doesn't make a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. I think stuff like this is easy to tolerate because, despite its rather disturbing premise involving schoolkids being forced to murder each other, it is a fundamentally pulpy and satirical piece of work that doesn't go overboard in terms of seriousness but instead knows how to play up its absurd premise for some twisted laughs here and there. This much is emphasised by the casting of renowned comedian-actor Takeshi Kitano as the man overseeing this year's contest, with his haggard appearance and worn-out demeanour making him a definite scene-stealer. The other actors in the film tend to be young ones who are close in age to their middle-school characters, and though they vary in terms of ability they fill out the roles of scared teenagers reasonably well no matter what.

What makes the film really come alive is how it uses its premise to stage some unforgettably bloody and comical vignettes as students do battle with one another. Having a couple of minor villains stalking the island make for constant threats (case in point being wild-haired transfer student Kiriyama, whose silent yet gleeful stalking of his prey also make him a scene-stealer whenever he shows up), but often the film plays out a bunch of unrelated conflicts that have tenuous connections to the main plot. Individual scenes use use the teens' heightened emotions as springboards for memorable moments - one of the best scenes of the film involves a group of best friends turning on each other in the wake of a suspicious death, while another involves a girl getting bloody vengeance on a boy who won't stop pestering her. The scenes are brought to life with some impressive effects work with well-done mixtures of the practical and the computerised that still hold up a good fifteen years later. These scenes prop up the development of a main plot that involves a pair of friends swearing to both make it out alive by any means necessary, which isn't all totally interesting on its own but is a decent enough narrative thread to follow through to the end.

While Battle Royale is far from a perfect film that's got its fair share of shortcomings, even now it's still an oddly charming piece of work that manages to invent a clever yet controversial variation on a familiar trope yet not get bogged down in tedious dramatics. The film may be a little slow at times and it steamrolls over possible plot holes so quickly that you can't always pick them up or you just assume that they're part of the plan, but it's more than made up for by some rather inventive scenes of emotionally charged carnage as well as an extremely bizarre sense of humour bubbling underneath its extremely tense surface. Some excellent slices of classical music are used to great effect, plus there are some great leitmotifs (such as the ominous chanting that starts up whenever Kiriyama shows up). The film still stands tall and remains a major favourite of mine even today, and if you can handle an off-beat yet blood-soaked piece of dystopia then you should definitely check this one out.