Because, apparently, I’m a moron, I decided to start watching Battle Royale at around 1 AM tonight. So tonight I can’t blame the insomnia on anybody else. Baka!
I’d been hearing about this movie for years, and I was actually afraid to watch it. The premise — Lord of the Flies meets “Survivor,” where a class of junior high kids are sent to a deserted island to participate in a government-mandated “game” where they all kill each other — could either be brutal satire or an exploitative hyper-violent action thriller. Either way, it was likely to be gruesome. And everyone who mentioned the movie prefaced it by going on about how violent it is.
In fact, the movie does an excellent job of walking the line between satire and splatter. Such a good job that it’s hard to process, if you’re like me and always trying to stay one step ahead of the movie. The overblown orchestral music and opening titles suggest it’s an unsubtle parody, like The Running Man. Then the first couple of scenes worried me a bit; they implied that we were going to be expected to have real sympathy for these characters, only to watch them suffer violent deaths. Then Takeshi Kitano came in and it started bouncing all over the place — satire, then blatant parody, then suspense, then horror, then splatter horror, back to parody, then cheesy sci-fi.
Eventually it settles down somewhat, but it’s never boring and at least to me, never outright exploitative or stupid. The violence is all over-the-top Friday the 13th style, so it’s shocking but not actually disturbingly realistic. We know just enough about the characters to care what happens to them, but not to be bogged down in the absolute horror of what they’re going through. And it keeps up dry touches like Kitano’s matter-of-fact announcements over the island’s loudspeakers, and the tally of the number of “players” remaining after each death. It’s all just real enough to matter, but not so realistic that it’ll turn you off the movie. And that’s the best way to convey the message.
One thing remarkable about the movie is that all of the actors do a really good job — you’d expect a movie about high school to have at least a few horrible child stars, but everybody involved seems to understand the tone of the movie and play his or her part. You never get the sense of actors. The lead, Scott Baio-kun (actor’s real name is Tatsuya Fujiwara), is pretty boring and weak, but he’s got a boring part. And I don’t have a real sense of Takeshi Kitano’s popularity in Japan; I’ve never been blown away by any of his movies or performances, but he always has the feel of approaching an evil character from a different angle.
So in short, it works because it has the format of a splatter horror movie, but uses it to make a real message. That message is less the “we’re all monsters underneath” of Lord of the Flies, and more a comment on the growing divide between kids and adults. It reminds us all what it’s like to go through adolescence, being on the dividing line between the optimism and innocence of childhood, and the responsibility and reality of adulthood. Petty arguments, romances, friendships, betrayals, and loss of innocence are all magnified for teenagers anyway — Battle Royale magnifies these to the extreme, and the only outcome of all of them is death. And the movie tells us that we’re failing kids by treating them too much as adults or too much as children instead of recognizing they’re in transition. That failure leads to frustration, and that frustration is too often causing adults to just abandon teenagers as hopelessly “broken.”
I’ve heard that the book has the additional theme of a satire against fascist governments. I bought a copy of it a while ago, but haven’t read it. Now I’m afraid to; the story seems so precariously balanced between over-the-top horror and parody and satire, but does the book take itself seriously?