Jarv’s Best of 2000-2009. Number 3: Battle Royale
Now we reach the climax of the list, it becomes harder for me to separate and rank them. This is a film that I saw back when it was first released that just blew me away. It’s got a terrible reputation, mostly down to the bad timing behind the release (what with it being so close to Columbine) but to treat it as a mere exploitation film is to underrate and disparage a staggering achievement. Battle Royale is a masterpiece of dystopian cinema that creates a bleak and depressing landscape of generational fallout and every man for himself.
The premise and plot of the film are astoundingly simple. In the near future, society in Japan has collapsed. In a panic, the government pass the BR Act, that picks one class in a lottery, dumps them on a remote island, arms them and they fight to the death with only one pupil leaving. Battle Royale is a violent film, and a brutal one at that, but it’s also a masterpiece, a film that manages to paint a haunting picture using a blood soaked pallet.
The director, Fukasaku, had a huge problem with this film. There is an absolutely enormous cast of cannon fodder, and if the slaughter is to be anything more than gratuitous and exploitative, then it is absolutely imperative that the viewer cares about those soon to die. If we haven’t got some sympathy for their plight, then all we’re watching is basically murder porn. Given that there are 40 students, it is obviously impossible to develop all of them- so there have to be careful choices as to who to develop and who to ignore. Fukasaku wisely limits his numbers by allowing several to kill themselves, either off camera or very briefly on camera, kills the least sympathetic pupil, Nobu (little shit) right at the start, and also makes the decision just to focus on a handful- our hero Shuya, Noriko, Mitsuko, Chigusa, Kawada, and the three wannabe anarchists (although they’re more of a plot device than anything else). He also clearly marks out the main villain of the piece (Kiriyama) and allows him free rein to cause carnage.
For example, Chigusa is a minor character. She’s an athlete of sorts. However, the film establishes a relationship between her and Sugimura that is both touching without being pathetic. They’re clearly long-term friends, and also clearly she wishes it were something more. When he eventually finds her bleeding to death and holds her while she dies, his final line to her “you’re the coolest girl I know”, is terribly sad. It’s a superb way of separating and elevating a minor character.
Having said all that, there’s another reason for characterisation rather than exploitation in Battle Royale- each death is designed to shock. These are characters that we are meant to care about, and if we don’t care about them, then their deaths don’t matter. The suicidal couple at the beginning are a prime example. They have very little dialogue, but are obviously killing themselves on a point of principle, and are clearly scared to do so, However, the real impact of violence in this film can be seen in the lighthouse scene. The friends turn on each other based on little or no provocation and a depressing error. They punctuate the paranoia with sharp and snappy individual lines: “What sort of 13 year old is on sleeping pills” being a cracker. The inevitable decimation is brutally shocking. This is unpleasant stuff- we’re not meant to revel in it.
All the performances are excellent, with particular credit going to Takeshi Kitano as the teacher- in what is probably the least sympathetic character of the lot of them. He’s angry, bitter, isolated, and sick to death of modern youth. His home life is desperate, and he has been completely driven to the end of his tether. It’s a superb performance. I’d also like to single out Mitsuko. She is, and there’s no easy way of saying it: damaged goods. In the Special Edition her background is more expanded on, but she’s an abuse case. She’s also bulleyed by the other kids, who may well be jealous of her. However, she takes on the challenge of slaughtering her classmates with relish and despite committing some of the messiest murders in the film, she still maintains a certain degree of sympathy. Her final line in particular: “I didn’t want to be a loser any more” is a moment of great pathos, handled brilliantly.
All in all, Battle Royale is a great movie, and the reason I didn’t put it at number one, is that (and I’m going to nitpick- sorry) there’s an abyssal sized plot hole. Ordinarily, I’d let such things slide in a film as otherwise superb as this one, but this is an absolute howler- how, given that the film opens with journalists bombarding the winner of the previous Battle Royale, does nobody in Class B know about it?
Really, though, this is a slightly dickish quibble, but my summary of this film is given by the insane cartoon-like woman explaining the rules: “This one Super Lucky!”
Superb film, but is it wrong to want Mitsuko to win?
Next up is Germany’s The Lives of Others. More misery, I’m afraid.
I still can’t be bothered to put in all the links, but the top 10 so far is:
7: The Descent
6: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5: This is England.
4: Requiem for a Dream
If you haven’t read them, or the regional lists, and are remotely interested they can be found here.