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Survival of the Fittest

By Peter Crimmins, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday January 25, 2002

Controversial Japanese action film ‘Battle Royale’ drops in on Berkeley 

The most cruel and violent blood-sport from Japan is coming to Berkeley, filled with visceral spectacle to delight and offend. 

Battle Royale, a new film by legendary Japanese action filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku, drops a class of 42 junior high school students on an island where they are ordered to kill each other until there is one survivor. They are outfitted with a metal band around their necks, and if they don’t follow the rules the necklace explodes. A running tally at the bottom of the screen tracks the escalating body count. It is little wonder the film has stirred a controversy in Japan.  

“Children and violence is not an easy mix on either side of the Pacific,” said Patrick Macias, author of the newly published “Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion,” who will be present at the Pacific Film Archive on Saturday to read from his book and introduce the screening of Battle Royale.  

Each student in the film is issued a randomly selected weapon. The lucky students receive a gun or a knife, the unlucky ones might have to go into battle with a pair of binoculars, or a global positioning scanner or, for laughs, a cooking pot lid. 

As 15-year-olds, the students must also contend with hormones, friendship allegiances, fear and rage during their sudden-death survival game.  

The epic pre-pubescent struggle to admit you like another girl or boy is compounded by the possibility of the severed head or a classmate with a live grenade stuffed into his or her mouth crashing through the window. 

Certainly in America, with our national sensitivity to school shootings and video game violence, the concept of teenagers pitted against each other to the death will strike an uncomfortable nerve. But that agitated nerve coupled with Fukasaku’s filmmaking bravado and the ingenuity of violence lifts BR above the garden-variety slasher film and makes for an impressive piece of bloody action movie thrills. 

In Japan the film has come under attack by politicians and the PTA which tried to enforce edits of the bloodier scenes, and later to ban the film from exhibition. “We could say it’s the violence and children that offended a lot of people,” said Macias, “but perhaps the real reason [for the controversy] was the fact that it’s pointing the finger at the people on top.” 

The film’s ghastly game of survivor is created by a fictional government trying desperately to curb the skyrocketing youth crime rate. The politicians are never present on the screen but the products of their decision are smeared across it in lurid color.  

“Battle Royale is a film that incriminates everyone in Japan as being to blame for the, at times, sad state of things,” said Macias. The premise of Battle Royale is close to post-bubble Japan’s economic and social difficulties, and that might be why the film has had problems. In an interview with Fukasaku published in “Tokyoscope,” Macias asked the filmmaker why he thinks the film caused a political outcry: “It’s clear that this measure [the Battle Royale] that was decided upon by politicians, but no politicians show up in the film. This makes politicians who see the film very uneasy, because they don’t have the floor to say anything in it.” 

Macias said Fukasaku has always been a filmmaker to push limits.  

Fukasaku made his mark in Japanese movies with yakuza films, particularly the Fight Without Honor And Humanity cycle of gangster films. Yakuza are Japanese gangsters with a deep and rich history, famous for the intricate tattoos on their backs. Like the Samurai, yakuza are warriors operating with a code of conduct, called jingi – a word which Macias admits is difficult to translate literally but in written Japanese is composed of the characters for “honor” and “humanity.” In the 1970’s Fukasaku burst the myth of the yakuza and turned them into anti-heroes and urban thugs fighting, as the title suggests, without honor and humanity. His movies were fast, violent, and exciting.  

“There’s a lot of rage, a lot of confusion in his films which is really scathing and real,” said Macias, comparing Fukasaku’s work in yakuza films to what Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah did to the Western. “That’s his reputation… he’s an A-class, B director.” 

Fukasaku was 15 when the Allied forces occupied Japan after the war, and he saw the Americans attack and kill his countrymen, then immediately afterward offer assistance of food and clothing. He says the war and its aftermath were formative, and the films he makes now, over 50 years later, are still influenced by W.W.II. “Battle Royale really plugs emotionally right back into those feelings,” said Macias. “He could relate to children in a war-like scenario.” 

The emotions of Battle Royale are desperate and brutal, and at the same time trace common, even banal feelings of early teenagers. If you thought the sanctity of the high school clique was given melodramatic treatment in the work of John Hughes (The Breakfast Club) Fukasaku turns it up to a fevered pitch when a gaggle of girls determine friendship loyalties with the barrel of automatic rifles. As the student body diminishes the story wonders if the purist expression of love is suicide or murder. Beginning as a studio hack in the early 60’s, Fukasaku has made 62 films so far (he’s over 70 years old and still working) and a lot of them have been relegated to late-night TV. Macias reviewed several of them in “Tokyoscope”. He said some of the films are troubled by hokie plots and rickety productions but they all have evidence of passionate, energetic filmmaking. “You can see glimpses of it,” said Macias. “You can’t see it at midnight on whatever channel with 6-pack of Burgie. But it’s there. It’s definitely there in all his films. And I think in Battle Royale in particular.”