Films still have the power to shock.
That was the one thing that I learned watching Battle Royale. Audiences have become too complacent. To see a film is slowly losing its power as people become more and more afraid to push the audiences expectations. Battle Royale is not the most violent film I have ever seen. But it at least addresses it in a way other than toned down for PG-13 or so over the top it becomes comical.
Battle Royale actually has a very simple plot. A group of Japanese school children are taken to a deserted island by order of the BR act. Once there, they are put in a game in which each child is given a different weapon and told that, at the end, the sole survivor will be granted their freedom. The main kid they focus on is Nanahara, who is disillusioned from life after seeing his father hang himself. He attempts to survive by teaming up with girl named Noriko, the crush of his dead friend, and Kawada, a survivor of a previous game. Elsewhere, other kids succumb to the violence of the game, with Kazuo and Mitsuro committing particularly vicious acts against their peers.
Now, upon reading the description, many will be reminded of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. They would be correct; the film does act like a sort of modern day version of that novel. It is also the best filmed version of those themes. Yes, Golding’s work has been filmed before, but never successfully. They always felt like they were just going through the motions. They had nothing else to say. Filmmaker’s felt that Golding had examined the material and themes as much as any person can.
But they were wrong. Battle Royale does expand on those themes. I mentioned the violence at the beginning of the review. Such material was meant to be violent. Even Lord of the Flies was quite violent in its execution. Other filmmakers ignored such a trend to truly revel in teenage violence, with the exception of maybe Stanley Kubrick. Not here. Human nature is truly revealed, blood and all. One character in the film even signed up for the game, literally, for fun. Any character who suggests peace and tries to break out is killed in a vicious way. There is no place for logic. It is the ultimate look at man in a state of nature. Next time someone describes nature as a paradise, show them this film. If they hold the same views, they have missed the point.
Of course, the film is also perfect at the most basic level. There are many characters in the film; I would be hard pressed to name them all. But they each feel like people. No death is meaningless. Each time a character dies, the film gives time to reflect on the loss. This is such a complete opposite of the current Hollywood trend that it almost has to be seen to be believed. Was there ever a film with such a high body count that still made every death matter? This was my favorite aspect of the film. Most films do not even succeed at that. They make me wonder who the characters are, why I should care about them, or in some extreme cases make me call out for their death. I know that sounds horrible, but think about the implications. If I call out of a characters death, I am well aware that it is a character and thus there is no danger. I start paying attention to the make up effects in the character’s demise rather than the fact that a filmmaker wants me to acknowledge that a person has died. It’s called immersion, and most films react to it with such disdain that I feel that should just go ahead and take the postmodern approach and actually acknowledge that they know the fact we are watching a film. But few do. Granted, this is not a post modern film. It just is a film that made up its mind.
But is this just a piece of violence for the sake of violence? No, not really, in the same way the A Clockwork Orange is not truly memorable for its violence. Well, alright, it is, but that is only on the surface. The true idea was about social science and fascism targeting what could potentially turn into a youth rebellion. In other words, the exact same as the themes of Battle Royale. Too often the adults express absolute scorn for the kids. They view the body counts of the day as numbers on a page. During an instructional video, one teacher tries to get the students to clap and react to it. Never mind the fact he is asking them to kill themselves. And it is what the kids do in the situation that proves they still have a choice and are complete human beings. Those who start killing lose their humanity. Those who kill themselves are treated as heroes. Of course, it is those who exit the state of nature and try to form their own society on the island to survive that are the greatest heroes of them all.
There is so much to admire about Battle Royale, be it the amazing action sequences or the well thought out characters. It is somewhat difficult to track down, but it is worth it. Battle Royale was the best Asian export in 2000. Yes, even more so that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. You will not leave the film the same person you were. And that is one of the best things a film can do.