The Big Picture: Battle Royale (18)

Teacher, leave them kids alone
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The Independent Culture

In any other week, a film as morbid and gruesome as Battle Royale would prompt expressions of alarm. Issues of censorship would once again be aired, and perhaps an editorial would inveigh against its graphic depictions of slaughter. It has already caused outrage in its native Japan, where the government considered banning it. But, horrifically, real life has outstripped even this film's grotesque imaginings. Nothing can compare with the long shot of that second plane careening into the South Tower.

In these circumstances, Battle Royale is both a reflection of the exorbitant violence of our times and an escape into it. One could be forgiven for thinking it the work of a young filmmaker, so in-your-face is its premise and execution, yet it's made by veteran director Kinji Fukasaku, whose yakuza pictures of the 1970s have been admired by Quentin Tarantino, among others. With this movie (his 60th), Fukasaku has finessed a compelling hybrid of genres: it is at once a dystopian thriller, a tar-black comedy and a pointed allegory, which disturbingly overlap and counterpoint one another – sometimes one hardly knows whether to laugh or recoil in dismay. It's been called a cross between Lord of the Flies and Survivor, which doesn't get close to capturing the unholy strangeness of the experience.

The story is set in the near future, with Japan in decline; the economy is on the skids, youth crime and violence are out of hand. The government responds by instituting a yearly Battle Royale, whereby a school class is chosen at random and forced to fight to the death on an isolated island. This year, the unlucky contestants are a ninth-grade class of 40 teenagers, though when they happily embark on a field trip they have not the least idea what lies in store. Waking from drug-induced unconsciousness, they find themselves in a military compound surrounded by armed guards. A former teacher, Kitano ("Beat" Takeshi), coolly explains to them the rules of the game: each student will be equipped with food, water, a map and a weapon; the battle will last three days, at the end of which only one survivor will emerge – and presumably rejoin society. Should more than one survivor remain, everyone dies.

To enforce the rules the students are each fitted with an electronic dog collar primed to explode if they are caught in one of the rotating danger zones – or if they attempt to remove it from their neck. "If this is a bad joke, please stop it," begs one of them. But it's not a joke, as Kitano proves when he skewers a recalcitrant pupil's head with a knife. And so the game begins.

The first shock arrives on learning that the "weapons" distributed are by no means equivalent. Some pupils have automatic rifles, others have crossbows and knives; less fortunate contestants such as Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) have to make do with a saucepan lid. One has a bullet-proof vest, another only a pair of binoculars. Who said anything about "fair"? The next shock is more gradual, as one realises that the film is presenting a microcosm of humanity under pressure. Director Fukasaku has distilled the idea of social Darwinism to a brutal purity, and it is our dubious privilege to see how people's reactions differ: will the instinct for individual preservation beat out the advantages of acting in concert?

How, the film implicitly asks, would you cope in combat? Some refuse to countenance the killing at all, and prefer a suicide jump from the cliffs. Others regard their situation as a zero-sum game, believing that the elimination of fellow competitors will necessarily improve their own chances: those untrained in the tactics of survival commando soon perish, but one or two of the more cold-blooded individuals find that it pays to go solo.

Arguing the merits of civilisation are Shuya and his girlfriend, Noriko (Aki Maeda), who stick together instinctively, and find themselves befriended by one of two rogue contestants, Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), a former Battle Royale winner who's been brought back for seconds. Elsewhere on the island, small units of resistance spring up: a group of friends make their own bomb factory, while one of them pecks away at a computer to try to hack into the command centre's nervous system.

But teamwork can also backfire, as Shuya discovers when he finds that the party of girls who patched up his wounds have destroyed themselves in the hair-trigger atmosphere of mutual suspicion and hostility. The point is bleakly comic: the rivalries of the classroom suddenly escalate into murderous vendettas. Cliquishness may save your life, or seal your doom. The body count rises, and it is part of the film's exquisite sense of torture that the students shed their anonymity and take on a character just before they're smoked.

The film, written by Kenta Fukasaku, continually undercuts the atrocities with a slightly puckish humour, such as the running tally of victims over the Tannoy, or the unexpected intervention of the teacher holding an umbrella over a stricken casualty. But horror remains uppermost.

Some have interpreted Battle Royale as a comment on Japan's fiercely competitive educational system, though the director himself has hinted that the film derives from a reckoning of his own past. As a 15-year-old at the end of the Second World War, Fukasaku worked in a weapons factory that was a regular target of enemy bombing, and he remembers the scramble for survival that would accompany a raid. He and his co-workers would hide behind each other or beneath the dead bodies in trying to avoid the bomb blasts. Afterwards, nobody was made to feel guilty, but, as he says, "it made me understand the limits of friendship".

Fukasaku's film poses questions about life and death which, since this Tuesday's events in America, have taken on a hideous new aspect.