Sunday, August 28, 2011
#187: Battle Royale
Kinji Fukasaku was the director of the Japanese portion of Tora!Tora!Tora, an acclaimed war movie based on Pearl Harbor. There is an interesting story that that portion was supposed to be initially directed by Akira Kurosawa who actually fired himself from the project once he got to know that David Lean wasn't doing the American part. It is then that Fukasaku stepped in and made his name in Hollywood. His reputation as a crime and violence specialist aided him in taking up the directorial reins way back in 1970 and thirty years later he would nail that reputation with his Japanese cult offering Battle Royale. There's only so much that yours truly knows about Japanese cinema barring the holy trio of Kurosawa, Mifune and Shimura but the temptation to review a movie that is one of Tarantino's favorites was hard to resist.
The premise of Battle Royale is set in minutes into the movie and speaks of a time when Japan is in disarray with unemployment at it's peak and the youth's lawless abandon threatening the future of the country. It is then that the government passes a Battle Royale act and takes on a teacher called Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) to start playing a real-life game called Battle Royale. The game includes a bunch of students of Grade IX who are taken to a deserted island and given different weapons to kill one another. The winner is the survivor of this outrageous game. There is also a collar attached to every student that will explode either at the end of 3 days or if you tried to cut it open. Sounds gruesome ? Well, that is just the beginning. 41 students rush out of the classroom one by one where they're briefed matter-of-factly by Kitano unaware of what lies ahead over the next three days.
The beauty of the story is that not everyone wants to kill and not everyone wants to be generous either. The 41 students are a mix of scared, defiant, violent (one of the participant is there just for fun), submissive, timid and ruthless characters who are at their wits end fighting the ultimate battle for survival. Based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Koushon Takimi, Battle Royale swoops in at one go to prepare you for the violence that lies ahead. Viewers are then subjected to 40 murders over the next 100 odd minutes and yet the plot doesn't bore you because there is something novel in almost every murder. The movie has an intense pace like some of the old Kurosawa action movies and the urgency in the characters' movements and body language add to the escalating tension. In terms of performances, the sadistic Kitano stands out for being unfazed like a rock with all the violence that he has instigated. There is a chilling touch to his methods, for example, take the scene when closer to the game's finish he is seen exercising outside his base camp calmly waiting for the winner.
It is remarkable to note that none of the cast members had a stunt double during the filming of a movie that could give any other violent movie from any part of the world a run for its money. Equally noteworthy is the fact that even with such a large and a young cast, there aren't too many moments that would make you think a performer wasn't upto the mark. A significant plot point that comes closer to the end of Battle Royale elevates it to an edge-of-the-seat fare but just when the movie had the potential to become a real classic like an Oldboy, the actual climax lets you down. After the shock opening and a tightly knit second act, the closure seemed somewhat tame. It is quite likely that a situation where you have to kill your friends to survive in an isolated island will feature in your top three nightmares. Battle Royale plays out that nightmare on-screen and makes it chillingly real. It falters a bit towards the end but the experience of seeing it unfold is unforgettable.