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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Battle Royale - 2000

What is there to say about this film that hasn't been said before? , one of the most controversial works of the past decade, Tarantino's favourite film since 1992, an example of how sick and twisted our modern world has become... these are a few of the reasons I made up my mind to see this film.
Now I am not one who actively seeks out the most controversial and disturbing films in existence, I will be the first to admit that I am rather sensitive when it comes to what I watch, consequently I haven't seen films such as Irreversible, Salo, the work of Takeshi Miike, Antichrist, the list goes on and on.
But what I will watch are films that are controversial for a reason, not just for their graphic and disturbing content but for their message and the power with which they transmit it, such films as Peeping Tom, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver and Straw Dogs, to name only a few.

I think much of the discussion provoked by Battle Royale centred around the violence administered by children on other children, thus it can be in a way compared to last year's Kick Ass (which I found to be entertaining and hardly worth all the fuss) which caused much controversy with it's character of a foul mouthed and ultra violent young girl.
The violence in this film can hardly be ranked among some of the most extreme ever put on film, but it is the fact that it issued in such a context that shocks people, so if you go into this film expecting some of the most gruesome violence ever put on film (as I did) then you will be disappointed or, in my case, relieved.
I find this criticism slightly puzzling, why not criticise the violence itself, why focus on who perpetrates it? violence is violence after all and it is a major aspect of human existence it cannot be ignored and yet it shouldn't be glamorised à la "300" (terrible, terrible film).

What I find particularly annoying is when viewers fail to see the bigger picture, instead they focus on the violence depicted before them, take for example Taxi Driver, it garnered much criticism for it's climatic shoot out which was highly violent for it's day, but I think people should be shocked by the fact that the society presented in that film was so degenerate and corrupt that the character should have to resort to violence in order to make a serious change for the better. Thus I find the context more shocking than the violence itself, the same goes for Battle Royale.

Battle Royale takes place in the near future, if I had to confine this film to a single sub-genre then I would surely classify it as a Dystopian film, in this future overpopulation has reached unmanageable figures and the children run wild, are prone to violence and have become increasingly independent of their parents, teachers, guardians...

 The adults grow frustrated and possibly even fearful of this new generation and consequently put in place the Battle Royale Act. I refer to the adults as one separate "group" of people for that is how they are seen in this film, two different groups who are in conflict, no matter if they are all of the same race, nationality and even family, the conflict has to do with age, but also with the different generations, for this film is very much about the difference in ideas, beliefs and attitudes from one generation to another, in a way this can be seen as "adults versus children/teenagers".
So back to the plot, this Battle Royale act consists in the random selection of one class (of about 40 students), the class is then taken to a deserted island upon which they must do battle in order to survive, there can only be one survivor meaning friend must slay friend and even lover must slay lover, the strongest/most sadistic/luckiest will ultimately be the sole survivor and will be freed.
But this already challenging task is further complicated by the fact that each student is fitted with a necklace capable of blasting of their heads off, thus the organisers of this cruel ordeal ultimately hold the students lives in their hands. Thus refusing to fight, staying in one place, and attempting a peaceful resolution will result in a horrifying decapitation, but that is not all, as if thins weren't challenging enough, their also happens to be a time limit to the ordeal, if there is no winner by the third day all will die and there really will be no winner at all.

Here's the Trailer for the film:

 And now, on with the review!

Ultimately the many complex reasons for the children's challenging behaviour can be traced back to the adults themselves, they left their children, were cruel to the children, failed to help them when they needed it most in their formative years and eventually turned on them as they represented their guilt and failure as parents and teachers and punished them, albeit extremely severely.

One of the major themes of this film, and the one it's most known for, is seen on the poster's tagline: "Have you ever killed your best friend?", thus many complex questions are provoked, would you be able to kill your friend in order to save yourself? Would you rather commit suicide than have to fight against your friends?, in short Battle Royale is a film about survival and friendship, although in a very twisted way.
Throughout the film we see friends struggling to survive, some of these friendships are not true enough and quickly crumble under the intense pressure of the situation, as is the case which the girls in the lighthouse tower who end up killing each other during an argument, whilst some friendships last throughout the ordeal, as in the case of the two main characters.
I think this is one of the main reasons many people watch the film and it certainly raises interesting questions about ones nature but as a whole it isn't handled very subtly.
The survival aspect was very interesting as well, I like survival themed films and this was certainly one of the best I've seen, it was most interesting to see how each character coped with the situation and the fact that the two "exchange students" were present and highly dangerous only makes it more interesting.

One element that really worked in the films favour was the sheer unpredictability of the events and the characters actions, of course this will only be effective upon ones first viewing but it is so powerful that you are not likely to forget it in a hurry, I found myself gasping with surprise upon many occasions.

I think this film can be interpreted in many different ways, I personally thought it was an interesting critique of education systems, the fact that punishment and fear of punishment is widely used as a teaching method and has been for a very long time and that in this film what we see is that punishment taken to outrageous extremes.
This attitude to punishment ultimately works against the adults as the young increasingly lose respect for them and become hardened to their punishments thus the adults move on the something more extreme.

Now as for the students themselves, well each one of them have different reactions to their present situation and each ones reaction is wildly different, ranging from silent acceptance, hysterical fits, refusal to participate, a grim determination to live through, a cool headed and organised attempt to fight back against those responsible for their situation, enjoyment in killing and suicide. To work my way through this wide range of responses I would need to write an essay instead of this short review, so I will content myself with remarking that the makers of this film did a particularly great job in character development and dialogue writing. Thus making the film far more complex than it would at first seem.

The students struggles for survival are interspersed with flashbacks and scenes involving boyfriend/girlfriend type dialogue and attitudes. The flashbacks were vital, in my opinion, in understanding the motivations of the main characters and thankfully the film doesn't indulge in over long flashbacks and leaves the past of the supporting characters a mystery, but on the other hand I felt that the flashback that concerned solely the main character (that of his dead father) was repeated far to many times.

The film's ending was unexpected but also rather puzzling, I still don't exactly "get it", but I'm glad it ended on a positive note for the film as a whole was rather depressing and nihilistic.
I felt puzzled by the character of the Teacher who organises the event, I didn't understand his motivations nor his fascination with one of the students in particular. I would of liked this aspect to be more thoroughly explained or if not then given less importance.

I know this may sound cliched to the extreme, but I can truthfully say that i was on the edge of my seat throughout the whole of this film, this is not a cliche I use lightly, often films have excellent scenes of suspense but to hold a consistently high level of suspense throughout an entire film is a remarkable feat.
But despite the suspense and thrills that fill this film and despite the obviously morbid subject matter, there is a surprising amount of humour slipped in to the film here and their, sometimes it succeeds and is strangely funny sometimes it's puzzling and sometimes barely noticeable.
One can't help but wonder if the film would of offended less people if it had been less humorous and disrespectful but had been more sombre and subtle. I think the films irreverence especially considering the subject at hand really put some people off.
Although I am only guessing, of course.

But this atmosphere of extreme suspense and above all unpredictability isn't achieved solely by the writing and direction, I think the performances played a large part in it, they were all surprisingly good, I had expected some second rate, B-movie style acting for some reason and I was very pleasantly surprised. Beat Takeshi (AKA Takeshi Kitano) gives his best performance I've seen so far, much better than in the average Sonatine and his terrible version of Zatoichi.
The soundtrack is a deft mix of instantly recognisable Classical pieces which are all fantastic such as Strauss's The Blue Danube or Verdi's Requiem, these aren't so much used to set the atmosphere, they are more showing flamboyant pieces that really elevate the film and make it extremely memorable, for the atmosphere and tone other more subtle pieces are used that are effective but completely overshadowed by the fantastic Classical pieces.

I mentioned previously that I was expecting a film of almost B-movie standards but was given the opposite. This film had excellent settings, editing, cinematography and a talented ensemble cast. It is easily one of the best films to come out of Japan ever since the old masters passed away (Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi).

Overall it is a very unique, surprisingly well made and well acted film that raises many questions and answers only a few of them. But above all it intelligently combines humour, violence, a myriad of conflicting emotions, nihilistic themes and a great script.

Before bringing this review to a close I would like to remark that although this film was never released in the US, not because it was banned but because no distribution was ever set up,  it has still managed to build up a considerable cult following, but sadly as is often the case, these fans often seem to miss the point and praise the film for it's over the top violence and sick characters.
Of course this is always a danger when one makes an ambiguous and controversial film, one just has to think of A Clockwork Orange which was withdrawn from the UK as it was accused of having a negative effect upon teenagers, well Battle Royale was subject to similar accusations in Japan, this I think is because people watch it for all the wrong reasons, they watch it precisely because it is controversial and to see the violence, that is like watching A Clockwork Orange only for the "ultra-violence" scene which I think many people do, thus giving the film a bad name.
Definitely not a film for everyone, but if you do want to watch it (and if you are a film buff I would recommend watching it), then I hope you find the violence horrifying and not "awesome" or "cool".

Well that is all I have to say about this strange and unique film (even though this review turned out way longer than I thought it would...), I would hesitate to recommend it, but if you like Dystopian films, which I do, then this is one of the best recent ones you'll see.

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