Friday, December 19, 2014

And We'll Never B. Royales

We never run out of blood.

When entreated about a month ago to head out and subsidize the newest half-installment in the Westernized teenybopper franchise fiasco that’s called The Hunger Games, I politely abstained, inwardly fuming at those who would thoughtlessly lend their support to a product of blatant plagiarism and commercialism.  Being a bit of a film snob, I elected instead to watch the work that everyone knows inspired Suzanne Collin’s cheap PG-13 ripoff, the work that shocked audiences all around the Japanese isles, and the work that brought the explosion of international child killing competitions to the forefront of our post-9/11 consciences.  Uncut and uncensored, Battle Royale is in every sense the artistic superior of The Hunger Games, pulling no punches with its extreme violence, emotional intensity, raw primitivism, and potent social commentary on… well, we’ll get to that.

If you’ve seen or read the American copycat, then you already know the basic setup of Battle Royale.  The two dystopian worlds are practically identical: both involve corrupt governments randomly selecting teenagers to murder each other in an annual competition, except that the teens in The Hunger Games are tributes and strangers and celebrities from districts subjugated to a centralized Capitol whereas the teens in Battle Royale are just anonymous kids from the same class who all happen to know each other really well, except that the Hunger Games government uses the games to sow fear and discourage rebellion whereas the Battle Royale government uses the games to teach kids a lesson about staying in school… or something, except that the Hunger Games games are nationally televised and virtually inescapable whereas the Battle Royale games have somehow gone entirely unnoticed by all the kids competing in them – which honestly begs the question of how the government expects the games to alter any of the students’ behavior, especially when they’re trying to reprimand/slaughter the kids who’ve dropped out of school and wouldn’t be eligible for the battle anyway –, except that the Hunger Games games are set in a controlled and dynamically evolving environment whereas the Battle Royale games are so poorly overseen that three guys are able to hack the gamemakers’ computer and rig a truck as a bomb in a matter of two days, and except for many other things, none of which are minor enough to change the fundamental, indisputable reality that The Hunger Games is an American bastardization of the foreign-language bloodbath.

And it is a bloodbath.  Make no mistake that Battle Royale is not a movie for the faint of the heart and doesn’t shy from the kinds of images that Hunger Games weakly refrained from showing.  Director Kinji Fukasaku turns up the CGI blood spurt level a couple thousand notches but never uses violence gratuitously or glamorizes it, a la Collins’ work.  Fukasaku’s strength as a director is his dedication to portraying human violence as realistically as possible, and it’s in this area where he triumphs over the Hunger Games creators, using only as many unlimited CGI blood spurts as are absolutely necessary to convey the devastation of the unlimited ammo holstered by the film’s token bad guy.  A lot of less open-minded critics have ripped the film for its frantic and confusing editing: how, they ask, does the badass redhead transfer kid manage to get a hold of the machine gun when it looks like the other guy is holding it, and are we really supposed to think that he can dispatch five other teens by spinning in a circle and firing while crouched like he’s some kind of action hero?  From where does the bad girl obtain her sickle when a series of shots show her chasing down the good girl unarmed; does it magically appear in the nether region between the frames?  How does the crazy math nerd get his own axe buried deep in his skull through the mere act of rolling down a hill?

I admit these questions bothered even me at first, but then I realized that the discontinuity and occasional incomprehensibility of the fighting was an intelligent production design by the editor and cinematographer, who deliberately sacrificed coherent and slick action to emulate the chaos of real-world violence, where people very rarely have time to stop and hold the camera steady or survey the battlefield well enough to answer the prior questions.  The original Hunger Games definitely had the right idea here, jerking the camera so incessantly and realistically that motion sickness was reaching all across the aisles, but the violence was so toned down to mollify fragile teenage girls that this became irrelevant.  The fight scenes in Hunger Games at least made a sliver of rational sense, but Fukasaku, in his wisdom, shows us that real violence never makes sense.  Violence solves nothing, people.  Welcome to 2014.

All that said, the actual idea of Battle Royale’s murder games is surprisingly a lot more disturbing than their implementation, this being one of the more palatable R-rated movies I’ve ever seen.  Of the 40 teens slaughtered throughout the battle (in a happy twist, a couple make it out alive, providing even more evidence that The Hunger Games is a knockoff), two of them are killed by the teacher before they’re even out of the gate, a few commit suicide by jumping off a cliff, and others get nonspecifically murdered off-screen (a couple in the buff and presumably after sex, which we don’t see at all in a movie full of otherwise animalistic and overtly sexualized teenagers).  An especially unlucky number get riddled with machine gun bullets and end up dying very, very slowly, usually at the rate that they can get up and walk around, gasp some dramatic final words, or even answer one last business call.  As prevalent as the brutality in Battle Royale is, the shock of the premise is always blunted by the ever-present hope that a character, particularly an important one, can still take one more bullet or stab wound before falling down for good. This makes it far less intense, if no less compelling, than an abundance of other gorefests including Apocalypto, The Raid: Redemption, any Quentin Tarantino movie, District 9, or The Cabin in the Woods. Don’t mistake me as saying that this film is in any way suitable for children or men without chests.  In fact, due to the dark, quasi-sadistic themes, intentionally incoherent storytelling, pointless title cards, and distressing foreign dialogue, I’m not sure I can safely recommend this movie to anybody.

Much uproar has been raised over the English-language subtitle track of Battle Royale, but reasonable viewers will understand that this mishap is in no way the fault of the screenwriter.  While it’s regrettable that so many hiccups should mar the translation of a foreign work, audiences should acknowledge that such annoyances are unavoidable and try to look past them for the gold that is the overall story.  If you want to watch a Good Parts version of Battle Royale, my staff has compiled a list of lines which may detract from your viewing experience and we’d freely encourage you to pass over.
Teacher: “Life is a game, so fight for survival and find out if you’re worth it.”

Teacher: “It’s tough when friends die on you, but hang in there.”

The main protagonist: “This is crazy!  How can you all kill each other so easily?!”

Slut girl: “B*!&%, murderer!”
Bad girl: “Why not kill?  Everyone has their issues.”

Dying girl: “God, can I say one more thing?  You look really cool, Hiroki.”
Hiroki, who has never noticed her noticing his coolness until now: “You too.  You’re the coolest girl in the world.”

Possum guy, after being pelted by unlimited ammo guy: (read jubilantly at the top of your lungs so that the bad guy can hear you and return to finish his job) “I made it!  What a sweet bulletproof vest!”

Rebel: “We’ll destroy this stupid system, and then we’ll all escape together.”

Disregarding these oversights and a couple plot holes, such as why the teacher would enter the warzone with an umbrella to scare away the bad girl and save the main female protagonist or why the teacher would call off his soldiers from checking the final bodies, thereby enabling them to infiltrate his compound and fatally shoot him, Battle Royale is a brilliantly written and thoughtfully composed movie.  Most teen killing competition movie enthusiasts were disappointed when neither of the Hunger Games films opened right at the beginning of the games but instead killed well above an hour in the Capitol and District 12 providing nonessential backstory and character development that nobody asked for.  Battle Royale averts this dilemma by throwing us almost immediately into the fray, giving us little time to know the characters who are about to get slaughtered or trip our brains up on any kind of sociopolitical commentary.  From almost the very first frames, Battle Royale is all action and doesn’t worry about making us sympathize with the victims of a great governmental injustice, trusting the emotional story to do that work on its own.  Rather than boring us up front with the characters’ diverse life stories, personalities, and beliefs, Fukasaku uses flashback sequences to establish his gladiators’ complex psyches: we have the transfer victor from a previous game who wants to get back at the evil gamemakers for killing his girlfriend (who appears to have tried to kill him, though the hectic editing makes this plot point unclear), the traumatized, fatherless girl who channels her seclusion and pain over childhood sexual abuse into violence against others, and various other figures we’ve never seen before.

The ending of the movie remains controversial even to this day, a shocking turn that will leave even film-savvy experts like me thinking, “WTF?!” which is completely fine, as Battle Royale is basically the biggest WTF-movie of all time, even more so than Sharknado, After Earth, The Happening, Avatar with airbenders, Buckaroo Banzai, that Seth Macfarlane faux western thingie, the Jonah Hill babysitter travesty, Shaun of the Dead, and other made-for-zombie pictures.  If you enjoyed the WTF moments in any of those films, then you’ll probably enjoy all such WTF moments in Battle Royale.  If you didn’t appreciate the artistic genius of any of those films, then you probably won’t like Battle Royale.

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