Friday, June 27, 2014

Recommended!: Battle Royale (2000)

Some of the excitement on American shores for the World Cup always makes me wonder. It's a common complaint that suddenly people who exhibited no enthusiasm whatsoever for soccer suddenly (and I mean suddenly) cancel all appointments to dive in for a month. The idea currently being seriously floated by right-wingers that it's an Obama plot to distract from...(I just started laughing, so can't/won't finish that sentence). I sometimes believe that it's the inherent drama of an elimination tournament that is so absorbing. Every sport has its playoffs, and every playoffs has a huge viewership. So it's not a stretch to suggest that the World Cup has all of the drama of any sport's playoffs, without the drag of a season leading up, with added global involvement and stakes. Interest accumulates as you see 16 parties compete for 8 spots, then 8 for 4, then 4 for 2, then the final battle, and even if the party you root for is eliminated early, part of you lingers just to see how the whole contest turns out.

There are a number of great movies that explore and mine the inherent drama of the elimination tournament. The first that comes to this reviewer's mind is Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, in which a class of students, selected randomly in a government program, are stranded on an island, armed, and forced to hunt and kill one another. Fukasaku tells us much about each character in a very short time and balances our stakes in their fates with the inherent thrills of an elimination tournament: some of the students become rootable heroes, others embrace the kill-or-be-killed format and become despicable villains, and still others are wild cards that keep us guessing. Their teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) presides over the action, but even his joking, cynical commentary can't disguise his growing ambivalence and shame. And as the body count rises and the action hurtles toward its bloody conclusion, Kitano is forced to come to grips with even more than his own personal failures.

For all of the movie's violent, visceral thrills (and make no mistake, Battle Royale has them in abundance - Quentin Tarantino called it his favorite film ever), it's no less politically charged than Kinji Fukasaku's Yakuza movies. Though the movie's based on a novel set in a dystopian future, Fukasaku moved the action to the present, seeing its story as a comment on a Japanese government that regularly lies to, disenfranchises, and otherwise screws over its youth. Members of the Japanese parliament played right into Fukasaku's hands when they condemned the movie as the product of a media whose irresponsibility was a direct cause of a rising tide in youth violence. Other adults, however, saw past these pronouncements, with some educators praising the movie for the directness with which it addressed problems facing their students.

Battle Royale moves like a blockbuster, but it balances its intelligence and politics deftly with its thrills. It's keenly aware of the mechanics of the elimination tournament being played out within it, and uses our own awareness of those mechanics to engage us with its action and its politics. (Every so often the movie pauses to list the names and grade status of the dead so far, a gesture that both engrosses and implicates us in the game being played.) For all of its superviolent gestures and exploitation cinema tropes, Battle Royale keeps us engaged with the humanity of all of its characters, and ultimately enlists us in its revolutionary crusade. And for all that, it's utterly thrilling.

(Incidentally, when someone insists to you that The Hunger Games ripped off Battle Royale, you may safely ignore anything else they say. This knee-jerk comparison speaks more to the observer's innate need to bash something popular to praise their own cultish appreciation than either of the items under scrutiny. Both movies riff on the same very general premise, but neither is the first to take the elimination tournament to lethal extremes. And to its credit The Hunger Games is as squarely focused on exploring American dysfunction and inequality as Battle Royale is on its own culturally specific societal malaise. What the movies truly have in common is that neither one bullshits the young people they're aimed at about the problems they're facing. And that's a similarity to be celebrated.)

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