Having made films like The Green Slime (1968) and Message From Space (1978) may not show it but decades of filmmaking, especially in the Yakuza genre, made Kinji Fukasaku a director in strong command of his craft. His adaptation of Koushun Takami's future shock novel Battle Royale (2000) is both successfully subtle and outrageous.
Being set on a small island where 42 school children must kill each other off in 48hrs sounds like a Paul Verhoven version of Lord of the Flies, but such a comparison is misleading. The point of this story is rather divergent from William Golding's apocalyptic tale. Rather than a sombre fable Battle Royale is more a slap in the face satire about false values imposed on teenage life. It's like an ultra-violent version of Lindsay Anderson's If..., but a very Japanese one.
It's directed at that culture's popular teen melodramas rather than Britain's boarding schools. But if anything is lost in the translation it isn't enough to dilute an anger aimed at a society failing to nurture their children and prepare for them a viable future. Indeed, the anger is so strong that the work is belittled being compared to uber-violence Western filmmakers whose cynicism is far too often aimed at their own audiences than the subject at hand.
Battle Royale is one of the most violent films I've enjoyed, but to call it gratuitous would suggest a lack of empathy for the characters. What makes this film hurt so much is the care taken to show the personalities of the hunted and hunting. And this multiple narrative of relentless blood splattering is played out under a sense of regret for the lives lost. The film is a traumatic lament for the destruction of innocence, an indictment on the resentment adults have for youth.
Perhaps this film forces the point too far that children grow up to become, as adults, almost a different species. But it is a valid issue that the cultural gap of generations has become insurmountable.
However, any point would be lost if it weren't for the earnest performances of the various uniformed teenagers and the beautifully underplaying Takeshi Kitano. His is the pivotal role of a once caring schoolteacher who has become the ruthless overseer of the game. His character is the doorway to understanding why a 70-year-old director would make such a shocking pop-culture pseudo-snuff extravaganza. The why seems important indeed and fathoming the why is what makes Battle Royale far more than a slick murder fest for psycho movie fans.
However, it isn't a film for everyone. It isn't sadistic cinema, but it is most certainly cruel. The message is expressed deftly with anguish and fear and does not want the audience to get away unscathed. It's hard not to be affected by this film's unrelenting violence (though recent torture porn movies risk softening the effect), but you might find yourself just as likely to be cringing away from its images of homicidal teenagers than be daring and delve into the pain of youth to seek some truths.
I can quite understand why some would consider this film simply as a callous exploitationer aimed at those with a fetish for school uniforms, but I think that's forgetting the Japanese mentality this film is addressing, especially the cultural memory of war.
Battle Royale is a very good film saying very bad things. But then, the truth hurts. And this truth is finding new reference. The novel is still a steady seller internationally and so to the epic manga series. The initial fan following at first felt it had run out of steam after Battle Royale II: Requiem, but no, it is becoming clearer that the subversive, rebellious institution that is Battle Royale is going nowhere but deeper into the sub-cultural sonsciousness.