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Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2000

'BATTLE ROYAL'

I was a fake juvenile delinquent


Take it from someone who spent five years teaching high school -- teenagers can be aggravating. But there is a big leap between heaving the occasional eraser to get an unruly class's attention and spraying the room with an assault weapon. It is that leap, however, that Kinji Fukasaku's "Battle Royal" takes, with an outpouring of violence that earned it an R-15 rating.

Did the film deserve it? No more than Stanley Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange" deserved to be banned, notoriously, from British theaters for decades. There is nothing in "Battle Royal's" blood-soaked survival game that audiences haven't seen again and again in years past, including Fukasaku's "Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor or Humanity)" series about gang wars in early postwar Hiroshima.

"Battle Royal" is disturbing, less for its violence, which Fukasaku stages much as if his underage characters were crazed hoods on a rampage -- a yoshanaki tatakai (battle without mercy) -- than its moral and emotional center, a bizarre blend of the soullessly nihilistic and the tiredly retro-sentimental. Imagine plunking fresh-faced teens from a 1960s Sayuri Yoshinaga film into the dark heart of "Blade Runner." The aim, evidently, was to humanize the onscreen splatter-fest for a mass audience, but the effect is to negate its impact and reduce its message to drivel. The way to win a mindless war of all against all, it seems to say, is to wear a halo of love and impenetrable armor of naivete. If only it were so easy.

"Battle Royal" posits a bleak near-future Japan in which unemployment and school violence have soared to record levels. The government may not have a solution for the former problem, but it does for the latter: the Battle Royal (BP) Act. Reduced to its essentials, the BP Act is a final solution for obstreperous teens, designed to terrorize them into obeying adult authority. Every year 42 third-year junior-high students from all over the country are taken to an uninhabited island. There they are given weapons and told they must kill each other until, by the end of the third day, only one is left. If more than one remains, all the survivors will be blown to bits. Ready, set, go!

Beat Takeshi is coldly menacing as this unlucky class's homeroom teacher, whose classroom aides are a squad of grim-looking soldiers. When, on the first day, he asserts his authority by skewering the skull of an unruly girl with a knife, he could be sailing a dart, with a tight little smile of lethal intent, at a bull's eye. But the film quickly degenerates into a free-for-all, as the kids, to whom we've been barely introduced, begin offing each other with guns, knives and other means most foul.

There are exceptions, including a pair of romantically suicidal lovers, but the most notable are Nanakawa (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), a boy and girl who became friends on the bus ride over and are as peace-loving as any two disciples of Mother Theresa. Nanakawa is nobly loud in his denunciation of the horrors he sees around him, while Nakagawa promptly goes into a ladylike state of shock. Both are good-kid stereotypes and both are as marked for survival as if they had "free pass" tattooed on their foreheads. They find an ally in Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), the winner of an earlier game, who may hate violence as much as his new-found friends, but knows how to use it. Without his street (or rather island) smarts, this pair would be as helpless as two fawns caught in the headlights.

Meanwhile, the slaughter continues and the body count mounts, while the absurdities glare. If the government hopes to make an example of the most rotten apples in the teenage barrel, why does it select so many kids whose only crime is normal adolescent obnoxiousness? If it wants to strike fear into the real hard cases, why doesn't it broadcast the game into every junior-high classroom, instead of keeping it a big secret? And what is the point of surviving if, like poor Kawada, one has to come back and do it all over again next year?

The game, finally, is nothing more than an excuse for twisted adults to murder children. The real problem of the film's society is not juvenile delinquency, but moral death, from the top down.

In "1984," George Orwell invents a similar negative utopia with a brilliance born of genius, anger and despair. In "Lord of the Flies," William Goldman made the descent of shipwrecked boys into savagery grimly inevitable by persuading us of their human reality -- and all-too-human weaknesses.

In "Battle Royal," Fukasaku gives us cliches for characters and exploits their desperate situation for cheap thrills and tawdry sentiment. Given its R-15 rating and the controversy it is likely to stir up, "Battle Royal" may well become a hit with kids, who want nothing more than to see what they shouldn't. But Fukasaku, who is justly celebrated for his ground-breaking "Jingi Naki Tatakai" films, ought to go back to killing off yakuza -- he's good at it and, more importantly, they deserve it. No one, least of all its audience, deserves a "Battle Royal."

"Battle Royal" is playing at the Marunouchi Toei in Ginza and other theaters.


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