[23 March 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It is sometime in the future. Unemployment is skyrocketing and society is unstable. Students, rebelling against authority, are failing to fulfill their educational commitments. Even worse, they have taken to disrespecting their elders and each other. In a move of totalitarian implications, the BR Act is passed and imposed. It creates a scenario where, once a year, a specific class of teenagers is taken to a deserted island and made to fight each other - to the death. If this sounds a lot like the newest wannabe film phenomenon hitting theaters this 23 March weekend, Suzanne Collins’ young adult driven The Hunger Games, you’re partially right. Though she claims no previous knowledge of the 1999 Japanese novel, it is clear that Battle Royale was some manner of indirect inspiration. One look at the two films made from this material, however, shows the weakness in the West and the creative commentary of the East.
After being assaulted and stabbed in his classroom, sad sack teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) resigns, leaving the students of 3-B without an instructor. A year later, a regular class field trip is rerouted. The various members of the middle school, including depressed teen Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara), his best buddy Yoshitoki Kuninobu (Yukihiro Kotani) and simple girl Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), soon discover that they are part of the annual Battle Royale…thanks to Kitano. All 42 will be sent out with supplies, weapons, and an explosive collar around their neck. The goal - kill or be killed. The last one standing is the champion. Over the three day conflict, something surreal happens. Old cliques remains intact, while others use their place in the academic pecking order to prey on others. With the help of a previous BR winner (Taro Yamamoto), Shuya and Noriko hope to survive…but it won’t be easy.
First off, in all fairness to Ms. Collins, The Hunger Games has nothing on Battle Royale. While the former finds a way to turn a dissertation on the haves and the have nots into a weird amalgamation of clown college dystopia and wilderness survival stunt, the latter lays it all on the line. Japan is sick and tired of their disrespectful kids, and basically can’t wait to see them destroy each other for sport. It’s payback, but of a far more personal and proud kind. Battle Royale sidesteps all the political grandstanding for the reality of what a kid on kid competition would actually be like - high school as blood sport. It’s eye opening to watch director Kinji Fukasaku manipulate his young cast to reflect the horrors and hatred that comes with growing up. Several times in this two hour thriller, we witness the cruelty that comes with camaraderie and the desire to be both accepted and rejected, the protected insider and the aggressive outsider.
In addition, the cinematic statement of same doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed. While the celluloid take on Collins’ combat buries the reality of the Games in shaky cam sequences and kinetic editing, Fukasaku’s fable has death everywhere. From the opening moments when Kitano corrects one girl’s “attitude” to the frequent hail of automatic weapons fire, we are not sparred the violence. Indeed, the brutality is part of Battle Royale‘s message. The notion that bullies can’t wait to destroy those they pick on in class, the concept that trouble at home leads to anger (and murderous intent) outside drives much of the narrative. We even get flashbacks to horrific moments from a few of the kids’ past. Shuya’s dad committed suicide, leaving him to live in a foster home, while another mean girl recalls her drunken mother’s child molester friend.
This makes the resolve of Battle Royale all the more meaningful. Instead of an Appalachian gal taking down a strange sci-fi cultural clime one mind - and District - at a time, we get the confusion and hate of being young. It’s adolescence with ammunition. Even better, Fukasaku doesn’t “excuse” his setting. In The Hunger Games, everyone can see the flaws in the flash. But the Battle Royale Act is nothing more than the most outrageous form of corporal punishment ever. After all, when 800,000 kids play hooky from school, something has to be done. Since a single class is used, not various tributes from around the country, the purpose is obvious - to set an example. The Hunger Games are like a social death sentence. On the desert island swarming with students, it’s murder as extra credit, death as a determination of your GPA.
Besides, Battle Royale is just a much better idea and execution. Kinji Fukasaku plays both sides of the fence expertly, giving his adult lead as much compassion as concern. As a matter of fact, Kitano has a wonderful moment where he calls his own kid, learning firsthand about how disrespect comes to undermine everything. There is also a dream sequence which underscores the aging adult’s simple needs. Sure, the last act offers a weird kind of critique, suggesting that Kitano is obsessed with one of the students and has never quite gotten over it, but the truth is slightly less seedy. Indeed, when you take into consideration how class 3-B found themselves in the firing line in the first place, it all makes sense.
So perhaps it’s time to cut Ms. Collins a break and stop comparing her girl power parable about fighting the system with what is, more or less, one long anti-adolescent screed. Of course, the Battle Royale sequel complements The Hunger Games later entries, suggesting that the failed social order will be forever altered by a complicated youth coup. As a result, it suffers. Indeed, when placed back to back, Katniss Everdeen and her well trained opponents have nothing on a group of scared but determined Japanese teens. While the members of Ms. Collins brood bounce off each other in reality TV resolve, their Asian counterparts just want to stay alive - or destroy those who would stop them…or who looked down on them in class…or who aren’t part of their particular sphere of scholastic influence….or on the basketball team. On a basic level, there’s a lot of similarities between The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Aesthetically, Fukasaku’s future shock wins hands down.