Monday, May 21, 2012

The Original Hunger Games: Battle Royale

Do you remember when The Hunger Games was in Japanese?  At that time, it was a manga and film franchise called Battle Royale and it is still way cooler that way.  Though Tora! Tora! Tora! co-director Kinji Fukasaku’s notoriously violent adaptation was released in 2000 (eight years prior to the publication of a certain YA potboiler), it never had a proper American theatrical release, until now.  Middle School Class 3-B will go for the dystopian jugular again when Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (trailer here) opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

In protest of their limited future prospects, eighty-thousand Japanese students boycotted classes.  In retribution, the Battle Royale Act (BR) was passed.  Unfortunately, Class 3-B was not paying attention.  During their graduation trip, Noriko Nakagawa and Shuya Nanahara (whose names evidently translate into English as Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark) are more concerned with the halting stirrings of their long pined for romance.  However, their former teacher Kitano has different plans for the class.

Waking up from a dose of knock-out gas, Class 3-B discovers themselves on a remote island with tracking collars affixed to their necks.  Kitano, who appears to have some sort of X-Filish super-governmental authority, explains they will all explode in three days if they do not play the there-can-be-only-one game.  Each student is randomly allotted a different weapon and turned loose in the woods.  Further complicating matters, two “transfer students” are also in on the game: the sadistic Kazuo Kiriyama and past champion Shogo Kawada, who has his own mysterious reasons for returning.  Nanahara vows to protect Nakagawa, but given the nature of the BR, it is not clear whether he ultimately can.

Frankly, it is a bit mystifying how the BR would act as an instrument of social control rather than stoking widespread unrest, but no matter.  More than most subsequent films it influenced, Battle really takes an uncomfortably hard look at human nature.  As a result of the school’s typically arbitrary social structure, resentful outsiders like Mitsuko Souma (played with unusual nuance by j-pop vocalist Kou Shibasaki in a star-making turn) readily embrace the game.  Yet far more refuse to play, either committing suicide in pairs or searching for a long shot escape option.  Despite its obvious existential angst, the film adaptation of Battle (penned by Fukasaku’s son Kenta) is never nihilistic, which is quite the trick to pull off.

Hunger Games defenders should ask themselves who is more hardcore, Donald Sutherland as the evil President Snow or “Beat” Takeshi Kitano as his stone cold namesake.  Before giving a kneejerk answer, check out the latter’s latest masterful Yakuza comic-tragedy, Outrage.  In a way, Fujasaku employs Kitano’s well established deceptively placid persona as a bit of shorthand, but the action star definitely delivers the ruthless goods for his legions of international fans.  Battle is also further distinguished by the running body count it maintains for the benefit of players and viewers alike.

To recap, Battle is more violent and sociological trenchant than its imitators, featuring cult-film all-stars, like Kitano and Chiaki Kuriyama (best known as Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill, vol. 1).  Recommended for all fans of violent dystopian speculative fiction, it begins its premiere American theatrical run this Friday (5/25) at the IFC Center, where it should find a large and appreciative audience to judge by the unexpected success of Ôbayashi’s truly insane House found there.