Blood and Guts in High School: Battle Royale

05/23/2012 4:00 AM |

Battle Royale (2000)
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku

It was inevitable, after The Hunger Games‘s bajillion-buck haul, that someone would now give Kinji Fukasaku’s legendary dogfight of a movie the American release it never got a dozen years ago. The Columbine shootings were only a year or so old, and no American distributor would touch Battle Royale with Dylan Klebold’s stilled, cold hand. For once you could hardly wonder at their collective timidity: something like the 120 Days of Sodom to the dainty Fifty Shades of Grey of Suzanne Collins’s bestsellers, Fukasaku’s film is a cataract of shredded taboos, and watching it you can feel the holy-shit violations in your spine.

If introduction is required, peg the movie as a dystopian-sport nightmare, in which an economically depressed and crime-ridden Japan has passed a law relegating an entire class of high schoolers to an abandoned island for three days, from which only one can return. Each gets a random weapon, which could be an Uzi, a GPS or a pot lid. The territory (from Koushon Takami’s Tolstoy-sized novel) is far more loaded than Collins’s because here these emotionally unsteady uniformed teens all know each other intimately, and the ensuing massacre—counted down for us, one body at a time—becomes a Dantean tribulation by which every past slight, crush, snub, insecurity, and bullying incident is brought to its unholy fruition. Surly teenage boys matter-of-factly shotgunning super-cute teenage girls in the back is tragically de rigueur. In what might be the ultimate veins-in-your-teeth expression of the national psychosis that is Japan’s school culture, the unleashed and defenseless id of childhood is transformed into institutional no-prisoners combat.

Which is another metaphor-monster, already nursed rousingly by Peter Watkins and Roger Corman: the killing game as a stand-in for official warfare; here, the kids actively resist, like conscientious objectors, until the circumstances crafted by the state prove overwhelming. Fukasaku, 70 at the time, was a manic Japanese New Wave figure, given to hyperbolic gangster sagas, but his penultimate film (a dire Battle Royale II came out in 2003) cuts away the fat and accumulates like a death march, punctuated by open-jugular irony and often played for laughs that stick in your throat. (Four girls, helplessly banding together to cook a meal, quickly devolve into a bulletspray John Woo bloodbath in plaid skirts; one hottie, after riddling an eager boy who then confesses to having always loved her, cries, “But you never even talked to me!”)

Takeshi Kitano, as the group’s ex-teacher and the “program”‘s laconic emcee, is merely the uncaring face of a system that has no face; effortlessly iconic and finally self-eulogizing, Fukasaku’s movie boils down the universal into a sour reduction pulp no American YA franchise could ever hope to touch. Defying nearly every movie rule while speaking only the brutal truth, it might just be the best teenager movie ever made.

Opens May 25 at IFC Center